Tag Archives: The Dark Knight Rises

Man of Steel – Kal-El that ends well

The S stands for "Strike a pose": Henry Cavill as Superman

The S stands for “Strike the pose”: Henry Cavill as Superman

It’s been 26 years since we last saw Superman punch a guy on the big screen. The sole attempt to bring back the last son of Krypton since Christopher Reeve last wore the red cape, 2006’s cringe-inducing Superman Returns, saw Supes battling his greatest nemesis yet: an inanimate chunk of rock. That anti-climax is perhaps the greatest of the reasons that film, and the Superman brand, has suffered so hugely in the public consciousness.

Rebooted here with the explosive verve of a Zack Snyder movie, this take on the Superman myth satisfies both those who crave faster-than-a-speeding-bullet aerial fistfight-ery and those who like their Christ allegories with really good hair.

Superman Returns hammered home its Christ metaphor with Superman descending from the sky, resurrected, in cruciform pose. Man of Steel attempts to one-up it, recreating that divine posture—although at a less pivotal moment—and even having a scene where Clark Kent soul-searches in a church, haloed by stained glass. But it’s actually a lot cleverer than this. Clark, born Kal-El, is planet Krypton’s equivalent of the Virgin Birth, a child born through natural reproduction on a dying planet where kids have been eugenixed in Matrix-like pods for generations. Even before the planet crumbles due to the hubris of its ruling elite, Kal-El is already the last hope for his people.

As the fascist General Zod (Michael Shannon) mounts a coup, Kal-El’s father Jor-El (an exceptionally enthusiastic Russell Crowe) embarks on a quest to preserve the history of his people, showing the sort of physicality that escaped Marlon Brando back in 1978. The “Codex” of the Kryptonian people is retrieved and launched into space with the miracle child, just as Zod’s rebellion is brought to a close and the planet devours itself in a bowl of lava-Os.

Jor of the Worlds: Russell Crowe showing his son how staring into the distance is really done

Jor of the Worlds: Russell Crowe showing his son how staring off into the distance dramatically is really done

After this extended introduction to this slightly different take on the Superman origin, David S. Goyer’s screenplay eschews the chronological tracing of the early years of Jor-El’s life as Clark Kent, of Smallville, Kansas, in favour of cutting to his Bruce Wayne-like journey of self-discovery, helping those in need across America with less than sufficient subtlety for the only alien on Earth. In moments of reflection Clark thinks back to suitable lessons from his youth, the calming tone of his mother Martha (a finely aged Diane Lane) and the baseball coach morality of his father Jonathan (Kevin Costner, back with a very calm and insightful vengeance).

The intercutting flashbacks allow us to get to Clark’s discovery of who he is more quickly, uncovering a lost Kryptonian craft hidden in the Arctic and downloading his birth father’s memories, giving Crowe considerably more—and welcome—screen time. Soon he is wearing the old blue, red and bit o’ yellow and blasting around the planet like he owns the place. But crafty reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) is on the trail of this super-human do-gooder, and a vengeful General Zod emerges from the shadows of space searching for the Codex and the son of Jor-El.

Snyder, a filmmaker whose hitting and missing along the years have never allowed critics to deny his ambition and flair, shows remarkable restraint here, choosing to focus on the scale of the world(s) his story is set in instead of drawing all attention to action and movement; there is not a moment of his signature slow-down/speed-up style of editing, allowing the super-powered Kryptonians to blast around the screen at their own dizzying speeds. The scenes on Krypton could rival Avatar for sheer scale of world-building, while the flashbacks to Kansas are filmed with the tenderness and tone of an Oscar-nominated coming-of-age tale: the director of 300 shooting like Richard Linklater meets Terrence Malick. Who’d have seen it coming?

Kent touch this: Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Pa and Ma Kent

Kent touch this: Kevin Costner and Diane Lane as Pa and Ma Kent

The story is well-known, though there are a few new beats to this drum. Superman is unknown to the people before Zod and his army arrive. Lois is on to the son of Jor-El long before she meets Clark. Kryptonite and Lex Luthor play no part in the tale, although the latter’s industrial might is evident in one scene. A new extreme take on the life lessons Jonathan Kent teaches Clark provides one of the film’s most affecting scenes.

The action and drama are updated suitably, and there are some clever allusions to the world of today, with Superman in one scene forced to down a military drone sent to track his location. But the failure to properly evolve the Daily Planet, the “newspaper” of record, seems like both a missed opportunity and a cop-out. The internet is briefly mentioned as an alternative means to break a story, but there is no feel for the crisis in the industry. The scenes in the Daily Planet offices feel terribly dated, with even the layout of the newsroom floor looking like it’s from the 1970s. As if struck by a magic beam fired by some politically correct supervillian, editor Perry White is now black and Jimmy Olsen is now Jenny—all good progressive things, if only the characters were given anything to do.

The script is both the salvation and damnation of Man of Steel. Goyer, whose finest work rests in The Dark Knight trilogy, created this story with producer Christopher Nolan, taking a break from bats. The Batman Begins structure of the early earthbound sequences revels in this reunion, and Goyer’s screenplay is superb at contrasting the patriarchs and the lessons they imbue upon their shared son. But the dialogue outside of these father/son scenes is often dull, and almost every last one of Goyer’s jokes falls sigh-worthily flat. One military character has an identical arc to a police character in The Dark Knight Rises, almost scene for scene. The burden of two enormous themes—what does it mean to be human? and; what does it mean to be the last of one’s kind?—proves too much for Goyer to balance, and by the end one of these questions has been all but completely dropped.

British actor Henry Cavill, following performances in The Tudors and Immortals, shows himself a strong leading man as the adult Clark Kent. Preposterously handsome, like TV Clark Kent Tom Welling but sculpted in marble, Cavill’s presence dominates when he is not pitched against the two Robin Hoods, who utterly steal the film. Cavill may not be given too many opportunities to show off his talents, but in the few scenes where it counts his face unleashes an intensity and pain that totally sell the moment.

Hard-knocking journalism: Amy Adams as Lois Lane

Hard-knocking journalism: Amy Adams as Lois Lane

Amy Adams is less lucky as Lois, working with an awkwardly written version of the character, but still ever-believable as a successful female reporter. Zack Snyder, whose Sucker Punch has been the subject of more women’s studies PhDs than Sylvia Plath (FACT), refrains from making an obvious sex symbol out of Lois, keeping her professionally dressed throughout, and able to give as good as she gets in debate with even the most alpha male of men. If Goyer had been more successful in writing both her character and the love story between Lois and Clark, Adams could no doubt have stolen the show. Michael Shannon is similarly let down by lax characterisation, but his undeniable intensity makes him a riveting Hitler-esque Zod to Terence Stamp’s more Rasputiny take.

Hans Zimmer may be no John Williams, but his score rises at the most crucial moments and lingers in the ear with the same fire, if not the same bombast. This is a film with an almost faultless soundscape, and the sound effects on Krypton help sell it as both a believable world and society. The production design on Krypton is fantastic, with devices using Pin Art-style illustrations to communicate instead of video screens, and the costumes looking like Liberace-in-space, flamboyant but superbly detailed.

This all brings us back to the action, because yes—indeed—Superman does punch someone in the face. Several times. For the most part Snyder conceives a remarkable, rocketing look to his action scenes, although the speed can be hard to follow. Clark’s first battle with the Kryptonians is thrilling but overstays its welcome, and the camera at times is more concerned with framing the logo of an IHOP than showing the fates of those thrown through its windows. A battle with a tentacled robot is a poorly edited and indecipherable mess, but the payoff is immense. A re-enactment of a major scene from Independence Day slips from homage into theft, and the film’s recurring usage of the fatal consequences of buttons being only half-pressed down is insulting to the audience.

Zod man out: Michael Shannon looks, as ever, as if he is only moments away from snapping and killing everyone

Zod man out: Michael Shannon looks, as ever, as if he is only moments away from snapping and killing everyone

The carnage of the finale is unspeakable, and the presence of Transformers 3 DP Amir Mokri seems hardly a coincidence, with buildings crumbling and exploding all across Metropolis in a veritable blitzkrieg of CGI. It looks superb, but with Goyer choosing to focus on only three civilians throughout the colossal donnybrook there is little sense of human tragedy in what must be a ground zero of Nagasakian proportions. The Avengers was far more concerned with the average citizen.

Like the film itself, the action sequences are troubled, but overall satisfying. Snyder has not made the magisterial Superman film that people had hoped for, but he has made the most exciting take on the tale yet. Sequels will come, and the end earns them. But no scene is more deserving of a Superman franchise than that moment when Henry Cavill first takes to the skies, as if lifted by Zimmer’s score, and jets across the world, Snyder’s camera slamming from left to right, struggling to keep up with the superhero. It’s the cinematic moment the character has been craving since Action Comics #1.

You won’t need to believe a man can fly; you’ll see it.

3/5

(originally published at http://www.nextprojection.com)

1 Comment

Filed under Film

Crisis of the Guardians – Where did DreamWorks go wrong?

Exactly who is this film aimed at?

Exactly who is this film aimed at?

Rise of the Guardians fell under the radar somewhat in late 2012. A family entertainment for Christmas (set at Easter) with some wonderful animation and an undeniable sweetness at its core, it has under-performed hugely for DreamWorks, only now in late January taking in twice its $145m budget, which will elevate it to just a notch above “disappointing”.

Exactly what went wrong is unclear. Admittedly trying to portray childhood fantasy icons such as Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy as Avengers-style superbeings is a bit much to ask of audiences, but compared to other US animated films released in recent years this was still a step above the average.

For all its problems, from the basics of its premise to its mismanaged marketing, I for one enjoyed Rise of the Guardians. The animation was as strong as DreamWorks has ever produced, and the story provided a deeply affecting reversal in the final act for the character of Jack Frost that was as good as any moment in How to Train Your Dragon (although Dragon admittedly had more than its fair share of those moments).

But while I liked Guardians, I could not shy away from the fact that the universe it created repeatedly threw up mental roadblocks for me. Overt silliness in the dialogue or subtle visual references to other projects (intentional or not) would grab me by the brain and drag me right out of the movie. I imagine, given the box office returns and lack of word-of-mouth, that I cannot be alone in this.

Here are the issues that troubled me most.

1. Guardians! Guardians! Guardians!

No, you did not see this movie

No, you did not see this movie

It’s not DreamWorks’ fault of course, but my goodness there are a lot of films with “guardians” in the title doing the rounds of late. Back in 2010, Zack ‘300’ Snyder directed Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, a CGI owl fantasy movie. If you know five people who saw it, you’re probably lying.

Elsewhere, Marvel have announced their most risky project for “Phase 2” of their Avengers series, Guardians of the Galaxy, which features a brigade of intergalactic superheroes (including a rocket-powered racoon – take THAT magic owls!).

Of course what both of those films have over Rise of the Guardians is that we know from the title precisely what they are guardians of. Rise of the Guardians could be set at a foster home for all anyone can tell.

—————–

2. Guardians Will Rise

Planets full of apes have also been known to rise

It was an unfortunate year to choose “rise” to be the load-bearing noun in your movie title. The Dark Knight Rises was one of the biggest hits of 2012, and laid a flat-out claim to the verb “rise” and all its subsidiaries.

But Rise of the Guardians really is a nothing title. In fact, when we first meet the Guardians as a group, they are already an assembled unit; there really is no rising going on here. It’s just a title for the sake of it; that “rise” could be the most redundant noun in a movie title since Aliens Vs Predator: Requiem.

—————–

3. Where have I seen this before?

Oh what fun Jack Skellington might have had behind the other doors...

Oh what fun Jack Skellington might have had behind the other doors…

I won’t be the first to point out the fact that Rise of the Guardians is more or less the film that happens when you open all the doors in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Far more troubling though is the similarities to the plot of (sorry about this) The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause.

Seriously, just try and see how much of that trailer you can get through before wanting to jam a fork in your eyes.

—————–

4. Logorama

What if he hooked a person?

In this secular fantasy, the Guardians take their orders from The Man in the Moon – who traditionally appears in all DreamWorks films as a part of the company’s logo. In Guardians, is he a stand-in for God, or an overt advertisement for the company that produced the film?

It’s like having James Bond report for duty, only to learn that M has been replaced by MGM, a giant 80-year-old lion.

—————–

5. Tom Hiddleston!

He even LOOKS like Tom Hiddleston!

What a 2012 Tom Hiddleston had! Riding high from the get-go after strong performances in War Horse and The Deep Blue Sea, he played the maniacal villain Loki in The Avengers before voicing the dastardly Pitch Black in Rise of the Guardians. How could things possibly get any better for… wait. That was Jude Law?! Well fuck me they sound alike!

—————–

6. Santa LOLZ

If there’s one thing kids love it’s Night of the Hunter references

Santa Claus having a Russian accent makes a lot more sense than the English accent he regularly has in films (although it’s not quite the Turkish accent it should be). But seriously, Alec Baldwin does the voice?! That’s the best Russian accent they could dig up?!

Further to the film’s secular standpoint, Guardians moves away from calling him Santa and he is regularly referred to in the film as “North”.

But wait a second, his name is North, he travels all over the world, and his best friend is the Easter Bunny? Where have I see this one before…?

Oh.

—————–

7. Rabbit-proof farce

Is that an Aboriginal tattoo in his fur?

Is that an Aboriginal tattoo in his fur?

Hugh Jackman’s Easter Bunny gets upset when people get his species wrong and think he’s a kangaroo. “It’s the accent, isn’t it?” he asks in his actual Hugh Jackman voice. Yes, it is. That, and the boomerangs. If you want people to not think you’re a magic kangaroo, put down the goddamn boomerangs.

—————–

8. Oh Guillermo…

Who honestly thought this didn't look stupid!?

Who honestly thought this didn’t look stupid!?

Executive producer and top-tier visual fantasist Guillermo del Toro’s fingerprints are all over this movie, but nowhere more so than in its interpretation of the Tooth Fairy as a humanoid hummingbird woman. Honestly, I preferred his tooth fairies in Hellboy 2.

—————–

9. I represent the estate of Miyazaki Hayao…

You know, I can handle the fact that Santa’s workshop shares its architectural plan with the bathhouse from Spirited Away. What I can’t handle is that the yetis that populate it look like this:

What does that remind me of?

What does that remind me of?

Goddammit.

Goddammit.

—————–

10. Safe sex elves

Insert additional "horn" comment here

Insert additional “horn” comment here

I get the need to redesign the look of Santa’s elves, but why must they look like they’re wearing festive condoms? It brings a whole new meaning to the term “bell-end”.

—————–

11. Putting all your eggs in one basket case

Kill it! Kill it with fire!

Kill it! Kill it with fire!

Living eggs that walk were creepy enough in Garfield and Friends. This was the stuff of candy-coloured nightmares.

Yeah, remember Garfield and Friends!

Yeah, remember Garfield and Friends!?

—————–

12. The last three issues, combined

So the film explains where the Guardians come from rather well, but where the hell do all their minions come from?! Are the little hummingbird fairies actually the Tooth Fairy’s children?! This is the kind of thing that keeps me up at night.

—————–

13. Rabbit Hole 2

Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole, from children's entertainer David Lindsay-Abaire

Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole, from children’s entertainer David Lindsay-Abaire

Based on the book series The Guardians of Childhood by William Joyce, the film was adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire. When he’s not scribbling family entertainment like Robots or the Shrek musical, Lindsay-Abaire is busy winning Pulitzer Prizes for work like his play Rabbit Hole, about family disintegration following the loss of a child. No one else finds this combination jarring?

Is it a coincidence that the Easter Bunny in Guardians has the ability to open magic rabbit holes anywhere he chooses? Does David Lindsay-Abaire shit in the woods?

No.

Probably not.

2 Comments

Filed under Film

2012 in review – The year of archery and French wheelchairs

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

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

Archery!

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

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

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

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

French wheelchairs!

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

20. The Grey

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

19. What Richard Did

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

18. Anna Karenina

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

Full review

17. Argo

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

Full review

16. Looper

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

Full review

15. The Hunt

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

14. Lincoln

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

13. The Raid

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

Full review

12. The Intouchables (Untouchable)

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

11. Skyfall

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

Full review

10. Life of Pi

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

9. Holy Motors

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

8. The Avengers (Avengers Assemble)

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

Full review

7. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

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

6. The Master

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

Full review

5. The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists!

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

Full review

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

The Pirate Ship

4. Amour

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

Full review

3. Beasts of the Southern Wild

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

Full review

2. Rust and Bone

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

Full review

1. The Turin Horse

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

A Turin-out for the books

————————————————————————————————–

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

5. Snow White & the Huntsman

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

4. Haywire

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

3. Taken 2

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

Full review

2. Charlie Casanova

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

1. The Campaign

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

Here’s hoping for 2012!

2 Comments

Filed under Film

Thrones & Empires – another movie mystery solved

The epic what now?

I was left more than a little baffled recently when I stumbled upon a stack of this filmic oddity at my local video shop. Well over a dozen DVD copies of a film I had never heard of with a cast many films would kill for lay stacked on the shelves. While it’s not unheard of for a film full of big stars to go under the radar and direct to DVD, I instantly smelled a rat. All of the rats. The text from the back of the DVD box only compounded my confusion and suspicion. I quote:

FROM ACADEMY AWARD-WINNING DIRECTOR GABRIEL AXEL

A SAGA, FILLED WITH INTRIGUE, DECEIT, MURDER AND VENGEANCE…

Fenge (Gabriel Byrne – The Usual Suspects) steals the throne of Jutland by killing his brother, King Hardvanael and marrying his widow (Helen Mirren – The Queen). Hardvanael’s son, Amled (Christian Bale – The Dark Knight Rises) feigns insanity, to avoid his own execution but Fenge doubts his condition and sends him to a Duke (Brian Cox – X-Men 2) in England to be murdered. Instead, the prince becomes a hero, marries an English rose (Kate Beckinsale – Underworld Awakening) and return to exact revenge on Fenge in a ferocious battle for the crown that is rightly his.

Featuring alongside Byrne, Mirren, Bale, Cox and Beckinsale is a star studded supporting cast including; Andy Serkis, Freddie Jones, Ewen Bremner, Tony Haygarth, Mark Willians, Tom Wilkinson, Saskia Wickham and Brian Glover.

Amled? OK, so I think it’s clear what we have here. This is All-Star Action Hamlet. And yet a brisk googling of the film brought up nothing but a bare Amazon sales page and an article about two hit HBO shows, Game of Thrones and Boardwalk Empire. Thrones. Empire. My how those rats began to smell.

While Gabriel Axel sounds like he has the name of a director of action schlock in the style of McG, Rob Zombie or Olivier Megaton, he is in fact a respected dramatic director best known for his charming Oscar-winning period drama Babette’s Feast (1987). A little wiki-ing revealed that the venerable Mr. Axel is, at present, an impressive 94 years old – a good age to still be alive, but an improbable one to be directing historical action movies.

Putting on my DVD Detective hat, I asked around, and with some help from across the internet and closer to home finally uncovered that Thrones & Empires is little more than a shamefully cynical repackaging of Axel’s 1994 “historical Hamlet” drama Prince of Jutland (aka Royal Deceit – as if it didn’t have enough titles already). The date of the film, among other things, does explain why Christian Bale looks barely back from the Empire of the Sun on the DVD box art (interestingly, the film is notable as Andy Serkis’s debut, so there you go).

Here’s the slightly hilarious trailer:

So now the question is, will I see it? Well, the DVD remains €10, and I think I was far more interested in it when I thought it was a sorry B-movie remake of Hamlet than a respected auteur’s late offering. Also, if I want to watch Hamlet without Shakespeare’s dialogue, I’d be better off watching The Lion King. Despite the fine cast (although its 85min run-time is baffling – the play uncut is 4hrs!), there’s just no way to overlook what a cynical release this is. The fact that the film was re-released with this title to coincide with the cinema release of The Dark Knight Rises and the rampant success of Game of Thrones is the worst thing I’ve seen since Disney repackaged Cinderella in a “Royal Edition” set last year to coincide with the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

There really is something rotten in the state of Denmark after all…

5 Comments

Filed under Film

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)

Leave a comment

Filed under Film

The Dark Knight Rises – The long goodbye

The Dark Knight returns

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

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

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

World-weary Bruce and Alfred

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

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

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

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

Anne Hathaway shows off her safe-cracking figure

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

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

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

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

“BAAAAAAAAANE!!!”

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

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

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

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

Batman’s new Batwing the Bat

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

3/5

1 Comment

Filed under Film

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!

4 Comments

Filed under Film