Tag Archives: The Hobbit

Crimson Peak – I’m not that Innocents

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Goth chic: Mia Wasikowska and her poofy nightdress in Crimson Peak

I have this thesis on Guillermo del Toro. It stems from enjoying most of his films, but rarely loving any of them. There’s Pan’s Labyrinth, a film I flat-out adore, and there’s Pacific Rim, a big dumb movie that shamelessly tickles all the happiest childish parts of me. Otherwise, I can take or leave his work. Parts of the Hellboys delight, and The Devil’s Backbone is a beautifully put together if frustratingly simplistic fable. His TV series The Strain, adapted from his trilogy of airplane novels, is the sort of trash I greedily ingest between episodes of HBO-or-similar shows, but still find myself half-watching my phone the whole time. Because let’s face it, Guillermo del Toro is a great designer, but he’s rarely a great storyteller. Scratch that. He might be the best designer.

If Guillermo del Toro wanted to be a production designer full-time, he could be the Edith Head of production designers. He could be the Paddy Chayefsky of production designers. He could be the Sven Nykvist of production designers. Look at the elven guards of Hellboy 2, or the faun of Pan’s Labyrinth. Hell, one of the few things that kept Peter Jackson’s regrettable Hobbit trilogy watchable was the unexpected moments of bizarre design that clearly stemmed from del Toro’s latent role in their production.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that, expectedly, del Toro’s latest, Crimson Peak, is a gloriously designed spectacle, but it is also in so many other ways a farce. Its DNA spliced from the core strands of gothic romance, the film begs to be given the dues of a Rebecca or The Innocents, but is really just a subpar Dragonwyck rolled in a tasty supernatural burrito.

So here’s the story. Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, the bookish daughter of a successful self-made Albany businessman and widower in the waning days of the Victorian era. Edith has aspirations of becoming a romance writer and a curious and unexplained tap into the netherworld that allows for occasional ghostly visitations. Tom Hiddleston is Sir Thomas Sharpe, a visiting English aristocrat whose vast family riches have been depleted, with a stately manor that has fallen into Money Pit levels of disrepair. With his caustic and pernicious sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) by his side, he’s in town desperately seeking capital to help mine the valuable supplies of blood-red clay that sit beneath their hilltop home. A few swoons and a murder later, Edith is off to England to see her new husband’s home.

If that bloody goo oozing up through the ground and the mother-shaped wraith warning her to keep away from some place called “Crimson Peak” weren’t enough to make Edith run for it, the house’s state of decay should have. Cartoonishly gothic, with a hole in the roof that Disney’s Haunted Mansion would blush at, the Sharpe Family home is as unwelcoming as its owner is dashingly handsome. Soon enough, del Toroan leaking ghosts are clambering through the walls, and someone is definitely trying to poison poor Edith.

On paper it’s the perfect project for the Mexican minstrel of the macabre. He has wildly elaborate sets to play with, drenched in saturated colours of dark hues, CGI-makeup-hybrid ghouls, poofy turn-of-the-century costumes, and even complex steampunk mining equipment to indulge his concerning clockwork fetish. As so often with his films, it’s a flimsy screenplay, co-written with Matthew Robbins, that leaves the film struggling at the best of times, and fails to attach any emotional or conceptual resonance to some finely realised imagery.

What the film does have, however, and all too rare in the del Toro canon, is a sense of camp. The film regularly simmers with it, and Jessica Chastain’s frantic performance spits it out in clots thicker than that visceral clay. If anything keeps the film aloft, it is the camp value (see the portrait of the late Mother Sharpe), but even this is abused by del Toro. Upon first arriving at Crimson Peak, Thomas advises Edith to take a bath, but warns (in the film’s most humourous moment) that the tap will briefly run red. It’s a wonderful play on an old horror cliché, but it’s undone moments later when, as Edith turns on the tap, del Toro plays its spluttering of bloody water for a scare, complete with Wasikowska gasp and musical sting. The director wants to have his cake and eat it too, and to watch the jam inside ooze everywhere as well.

On top of this, there’s surprisingly little tension to be had, nor mystery. The clumsily handled murder scene early on leaves no question as to whether the siblings can be trusted, and the underlying eroticism of Thomas and Edith’s romance flounders under his blatant Monsieur Verdouxism. Two achingly predictable last act twists are handled completely upside down – Edith takes the revelation that she is to be murdered with preposterous calm, and flees for her life upon learning a secret that should only add up to a serious breach of trust and an uncomfortable fireside chat. Any chance of going full Turn of the Screw and letting us wonder if our heroine is imagining things is mangled by the opening lines of the film; narrating from a position of post-film survival, Edith assures us “ghosts are real”. Well then, that’s that then. (The line seems all the more grating and unnecessary given how attractively inessential the ghosts actually are to the story).

The dialogue goes little better, often feeling jarringly twentieth century. Speeches about carnivorous moths and ghosts stories (or, stories with ghosts in them, hint hint) are the wrong kind of unsubtle. ADR (post-production over-dubbing) is evident throughout, especially whenever characters talk about Victorian-era technology, planting thoughts that the script as written was even more troubled than what has ended up in the finished film.

Despite itself, Crimson Peak is never quite boring (despite tertiary love interest Charlie Hunnam’s most valiant efforts to bland it into submission). Wasikowska is misguidedly directed, but she throws a good deal of energy at it, and Hiddleston is always modestly electrifying. Chastain, hamming it up to the nines, casts away her full house of Oscar-worthy performances and just goes for it with all the gusto she can manage.

An English-language triumph still evades del Toro, but he has once again produced a hauntingly beautiful, if painfully unsatisfying film. Too shallow to be high art, too confused to play as shocker, it will simply act as a stand-in film in his career while he searches for a truly personal project worthy of his talents. Perhaps, if we’re truly lucky, he might turn to design full-time and help make another director’s work look the very best it could.

2/5

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The World’s End – Invasion of the Boozy Snatchers

Pub trouble - Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, Simon Pegg, Paddy Considine and Martin Freeman

Pub trouble – Nick Frost, Eddie Marsan, Simon Pegg, Paddy Considine and Martin Freeman

Who doesn’t love a good thematic trilogy? Three Colours? Rosselini’s Post-War trilogy? Fassbinder’s BRD? Filmmakers can explore ideas of genre and the era in which they live through loose thematic constructs that somehow inform upon one another. Often a filmmaker, like Antonioni, will cast the same actor in different roles in each film, playing with concepts of identity and performance.

The Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy may have emerged through a joke cracked by Edgar Wright in a press conference, but there’s no doubt it caught the imagination. Wright’s Shaun of the Dead had garnered quite the (deserved) cult following, and his follow-up film Hot Fuzz was a rollicking, hysterical, if somewhat messily executed comedy hit. The concept of a trilogy featuring the superb comedy duo of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in differing roles, each deconstructing the pulpiest of genres – horror, action and science-fiction – seemed too good to be true. And it was.

Crashing into the final hurdle like a wooden fence Simon Pegg just can’t leap, The World’s End is like eating a mint Cornetto only to find the bottom of the cone is not filled with chocolate, only blue goo and disappointment. Like Hot Fuzz, which suddenly switches genre with every passing act (from odd couple/fish out of water comedy, to slasher movie, to high-octane action flick), The World’s End switches tack midway through. Here, its Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? plot mutates into a clunky, misdirected Invasion of the Body Snatchers parody so suddenly that you’d swear you had just left the cinema and entered another movie entirely. And neither movie was very good.

Pegg, who has almost perfected the role of the likeable loser, here plays the unlikeable loser, Gary King. In the late ’80s Gary was the leader of the pack; not the coolest guy in school maybe, but certainly the most confident. Over the years his friends moved on and grew up, but he never changed, and is now a pathetic manchild, still dressing the same, driving the same car and listening to all the same music. An alcoholic and a drug addict, it is far less believable that he survived the 1990s than that his home town has been taken over by aliens.

Desperate to rekindle the magic of the “best night of his life”, an aborted pub crawl taking in all of Newton Haven’s 12 pubs, Gary monstrously manipulates his one-time friends into giving it another shot. There’s Steven (Paddy Considine), the quietly confident one; Oliver (Martin Freeman), the geeky professional one; Peter (Eddie Marsan), the one who was bullied in school and now feels bullied by life; and Andrew (Frost), the one who has suffered the most from trying to give Gary the benefit of the doubt.

Obnoxiously mirroring all the events of their first pub crawl so that we always know exactly what is about to happen, the quintet work their way along the ‘Golden Mile’, before an encounter with some humourless teens in a pub toilet reveals that many of the locals have been replaced by literally blue-blooded alien replicants. Fearful the malevolent powers that be might target people doing anything out of sorts, the group decide the discreet thing to do is politely finish the pub crawl and get thoroughly annihilated, then get thoroughly out of town.

Nightmare in Newton Haven: Simon Pegg, Paddy Considine and Nick Frost on the run from who the hell cares

Nightmare in Newton Haven: Simon Pegg, Paddy Considine and Nick Frost on the run from who the hell cares

Most of the faults with The World’s End land in Gary’s lap. He may be a believable character, but he is a despicable one, and nostalgic attempts to redeem him are repeatedly undone as he time and again proves himself to be beyond saving, and beyond worth saving. In Shaun of the Dead Shaun learned (like Spaced’s Tim Bisley) that it was possible to take responsibility for his life while also maintaining a childishness that allowed him to be himself. Here Gary never even begins to grow up, he just betrays himself and his friends again and again. For those who found Wright’s take on Scott Pilgrim obnoxious, you’ve seen nothing yet.

Worse still though, Wright and Pegg’s screenplay just isn’t funny. The jokes aren’t here. Oliver’s geekiness is highlighted through his repeated utterance of “WTF?” instead of actually swearing – it pays off in one decent joke, but by then you’re so irritated with the character it’s just too little too late. The classic Wright wordplay is present, but the style is tired from overuse, and there’s nothing to match the banter of “Dogs can’t look up” from Shaun or the farmers and their mothers exchange from Hot Fuzz.

Perhaps the finest element of Shaun, the pre-drinking speech that foreshadows the film to come, is here done to death. Not only does the film’s preamble give the entire game away, but in every pub the name of the establishment somehow relates to the events that occur there. By the time you get to pub 11, ‘The Hole in the Wall’, you’re not paying attention to the ‘drama’ unfolding but rather waiting for the damn wall to fall down. You wind up frustrated at the characters for not realising they’re so clearly in an Edgar Wright movie. The whole project feels self-aware and self-important, reeking of Wright’s comedic egomania.

Bizarre music choices aside, the big disappointment here is the film’s uninspired look, which never shows any of the energy of the earlier films in the trilogy. The fight scenes have a kinetic bar brawling energy, but they’re so distractingly choreographed that they never become thrilling, more puzzling. The alien robot designs, while original, come off looking cheap.

Pegg and Frost appear bored with their roles, with only Paddy Considine really giving all he’s got. Freeman, perhaps exhausted from all his Hobbit-ing and Sherlock-ing is hardly present, phoning his whole performance in via a Bluetooth. Marsan proves he has mettle for comedy, but he’s not given much to work with. As Oliver’s sister and a romantic distraction for both Gary and Steven, Rosamund Pike excuses herself well. A brilliant stroke of casting for the villain in Hot Fuzz is repeated here with a similar casting, but it’s far less successful.

The World’s End is at its best when it’s dissecting British drinking culture. Sterilised Starbucks-like pubs and school discos are featured and given the ribbing they deserve. But the film never settles on what it feels about alcohol as social lubricant versus social epidemic. In one of the finest dialogue scenes in the film Andrew gives a speech about how brave it is to be a teetotaller, turning down pints with the lads and standing up for himself. Not long after he is downing shots because the story demands it. It’s quite a shameful cop-out.

The character’s surnames – King, Knightley, Prince, etc – hint at a fantasy idea that has no place in this film, and is unfortunately repeated near the film’s denouement. You’re left wondering if Wright has even made the film he wanted to, or got lost somewhere in the process. There are clever ideas at play once the characters arrive at The World’s End pub, but they don’t even begin to make up for the drudgery of the film to that point.

Recently Despicable Me 2 had a better Body Snatchers joke in it than anything Wright and Pegg conjure up here, and the whole film suffers from a bipolar uncertainty as to what exactly it is. Sadly, the only thing it definitely is is a panegyric to Gary King, perhaps the most hate-worthy protagonist in modern cinema. He’s a King nobody should want. An act of regicide would be thoroughly welcome.

2/5

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

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And the Osc’Argo’s to… – Predictions for the 85th Academy Awards

85 Years of Oscars by ollymoss.com (click to enlarge)

85 Years of Oscars by ollymoss.com (click to enlarge)

Sunday night will see the usual meat parade of celebrities march down the red carpet at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, in their excessive ball gowns and ever-so-slightly personalised tuxedoes, before giving each other gold man-shaped pats on the back for being ever so special – or so the cynics would have you believe.

There are those amongst the cinephiles of this world who do feel the Academy Awards are a meaningless black hole of self-congratulation and commercialism, and they may be right in many respects. But they can’t take the fun away. For the more optimistic film fanatic, the Oscars provide the one night of the year where every person in the world (or so it seems) cares just as much about the movies as we do. Who cares if they cheapen it – at least they care!

The somewhat bold decision by the Academy to have the unpredictable and untested Seth MacFarlane host could well prove a trump card or a bright red self-destruct button. At the very least the quality of lampooning should be stepped up a notch from previous years. Other events of the night differ in the levels of excitement they inspire. A tribute to 50 years of James Bond should provide a quality showreel. A tribute to Hollywood musicals of the last 10 years will surely have less life in it than the roll call of the recently departed.

So how are the awards lining up? Well…

Best Picture

For a long time there this was anyone’s game. Les Misérables seemed a lock, before anyone saw how blandly it was shot. Lincoln was also an early call, which took a dip and then rose back up to the top of the charts. Zero Dark Thirty appears to have waterboarded its own Oscar hopes. Django Unchained has been greeted with bewildering raves from critics and audiences, but it is surely a little eccentric and excessive to warrant a win. Life of Pi and Silver Linings Playbook, both fine films warmly received, seem to have been pushed out by their more realistic and historically themed peers. Amour is the token nod to a master filmmaker, which is all-but-assured the Foreign Language Oscar. Beasts of the Southern Wild feels like a similar nod to a newly shining star in Benh Zeitlin, but don’t count it out completely – it’s been a huge hit with critics and would tickle the liberal hearts of Academy voters.

Have… have we won yet?: John Goodman, Alan Arkin and Ben Affleck in Argo

But realistically if anything is going to give Lincoln a run for its money it’s Argo. Ben Affleck’s light espionage drama has crept back into pole position after waltzing home with pretty much every best picture (or equivalent) award at every awards show thus far. Despite Affleck not being nominated for Best Director, it is unwise to count Argo out – with no best picture/director split since 2005, the Academy is well overdue such a discrepancy, although it would be the first film to win Best Picture with a directorial nod since Driving Miss Daisy in 1989. Evidently, stranger things have happened.

Should win: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Will win: Argo

Best Director

Making history: Steven Spielberg directing Lincoln

Making history: Steven Spielberg directing Lincoln

This seems an easier one to bite, what with Lincoln one of the top two Best Picture contenders. Steven Spielberg has already a Best Director statue without a Best Picture twin, for Saving Private Ryan, and his work on Lincoln is more than deserving. But so does Ang Lee, for Brokeback Mountain, and Life of Pi is assuredly the work of full-blooded auteur. David O. Russell seems an unlikely candidate, if only for the scale of his film, and that goes double for Michael Haneke. A Benh Zeitlin win would be a coup and a half. He should be very proud just to be there.

Should win: Ang Lee

Will win: Steven Spielberg

Best Actor

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln

Abolition impossible: Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln

I won’t insult your intelligence by writing anything here. Other nominees include Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook), Joaquin Phoenix (The Master), Hugh Jackman (Les Mis) and Denzel Washington (Flight).

Should win: Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)

Will win: Daniel Day-Lewis

Best Actress

Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook

The Oscar Games: Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook

Now here’s a proper contest. So much to play for. Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook) and Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) are fighting to be crowned the new Queen of Hollywood. Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) is fighting to be the new Princess. Emmanuelle Riva (Amour) is fighting for one last great honour. Naomi Watts (The Impossible) is fighting to stay in movies and not be condemned to television. The tide against Zero Dark Thirty seems to be squeezing Chastain’s hopes, and she will no doubt be back for more in the years to come. Lawrence is here a second time, and seems the likely winner. Riva and Wallis would both be record holders, oldest and youngest winners respectively. With a performance as strong as she gave in Silver Linings however, the same year her Hunger Games was such a surprise hit, Lawrence seems the best bet.

Should win: Emmanuelle Riva or Quvenzhané Wallis

Will win: Jennifer Lawrence

Best Supporting Actor

Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln

Oscar, the grouch: Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln

Coming out of the Golden Globes, Christoph Waltz has momentum behind him, but his character Dr. King Schultz, the highlight of Django Unchained, is perhaps a little too similar to Hans Landa, the character who previously won him this award for Inglourious Basterds. Alan Arkin already has his tokenistic Best Supporting award for Little Miss Sunshine, so he seems an ill-fit. Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook) gave his finest performance in over a decade, but it was hardly the finest supporting performance of the year. The disdain the Academy has shown for Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master will work against Philip Seymour Hoffman. This one has to go to Lincoln’s Tommy Lee Jones.

Should win: Philip Seymour Hoffman or Tommy Lee Jones

Will win: Tommy Lee Jones

Best Supporting Actress

Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables

Fantinetastic: Anne Hathaway in Les Misérables

There was a lot of talk early on about Sally Field’s performance in Lincoln making her a likely winner, but the performances of Day-Lewis and Jones (and Spader!) have undermined her hopes considerably. Amy Adams gave a chilling performance in The Master, but it is perhaps too dark (and complex) for the Academy’s tastes. Helen Hunt (The Sessions) is surely just delighted to back in the A-list. Jacki Weaver was definitely in Silver Linings Playbook, but I don’t remember a lot else about her performance. No, this is as assuredly Anne Hathaway’s win as anything could be. If Les Mis didn’t convince you of that, surely this video will.

Should win: Amy Adams

Will win: Anne Hathaway

Best Original Screenplay

Tarantino has already taken a few trophies for his Django Unchained script, a fact which continues to baffle me. Mark Boal will no doubt suffer the Zero Dark Thirty backlash. John Gatins (Flight) and Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola (Moonrise Kingdom) seem like seat fillers, but count neither out just yet, especially the latter. This is the one category where Amour could really step-out of the woodwork, and not just be another Best Foreign Language Picture winner and nothing more. Here’s hoping.

Should win: Michael Haneke

Will win: Michael Haneke

Best Adapted Screenplay

With so many exceptional adaptations this year, this could turn out to be the most exciting and unpredictable race of the lot. Chris Terrio (Argo), David Magee (Life of Pi) and Tony Kushner (Lincoln) have all done remarkable work in their adaptations, while David O. Russell has written a truly charming yet affecting work from Silver Linings Playbook. But in terms of transmogrifying a source material into a work of cinema, there seems no greater nominee than Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin’s script for Beasts of the Southern Wild, from Alibar’s one-person play Juicy and Delicious. But who the hell knows that the Academy wants!? Usually everyone, so why is this so hard to call?

Should win: Lucy Alibar and Benh Zeitlin

Will win: Chris Terrio or David Magee

Best Animated Feature

Tall order: Wreck-It Ralph

Tall order: Wreck-It Ralph

Here’s another unpredictable little venture. DreamWorks’ confusing but beautiful Rise of the Guardians didn’t even make the grade, leaving an odd band of five vying for the Oscar here. Brave is decidedly a weaker entry in the Pixar canon, but it is at times breathtaking to behold. A respectful nod to the studio with a win, or a “must do better” note sent home to the parents? That would leave the major contenders Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie and Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph. The former has the artistry, the latter the ideas – but both suffer from weak third acts. ParaNorman could scrape in, but its poor box office makes it the most forgettable of the quintet to the untrained eye. That could leave Aardman’s superb The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists (I won’t be caught dead using its American title), but it has been largely overlooked in previous awards nominations. Another tough one to call, especially for one that film fans are so surprisingly passionate about.

Should win: The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists (aka Band of Misfits)

Will win: Wreck-It Ralph

Best Animated Short

Love-struck: Paperman

Love-struck: Paperman

Disney’s utterly delighting Paperman goes up against the surprisingly sweet Simpsons short The Longest Daycare. Both feature playful acts of defenestration, but the former is surely the forerunner in this contest. That said, it would be nice to see PES’s remarkably inventive Fresh Guacamole win. I mean, just look at the damn thing!

Should win: Paperman

Will win: Paperman

Best Foreign Language Film

Waiting for the end: Jean-Louis Trintignant in Amour

Waiting for the end: Jean-Louis Trintignant in Amour

Amour

Moving on.

Best Documentary Feature

Due to unfortunate release schedules in these parts and unfortunate me schedules in my own life, I have not seen any of the nominees. Searching for Sugarman seems a firm bet based on word of mouth, but that’s all I can offer.

Best Documentary Short

See above, only shorter!

Best Original Score

This one could get interesting. Skyfall is a surprise nomination for Thomas Newman, and Dario Marianelli seems a wild card for Anna Karenina. Alexandre Desplat’s Argo score was one of the year’s better, while John Williams’s Lincoln was but a pleasant shadow of what the man used create in his prime. In terms of evoking a mood and sounding truly original, nothing should beat Mychael Danna’s Life of Pi score. Although the absence of both Beasts of the Southern Wild and Cloud Atlas from this category is definitely disconcerting.

Should win: Mychael Danna

Will win: Mychael Danna

Best Original Song

That Adele is so hot right now. Not much chance of that going any other way. Expect the manner in which Seth MacFarlane handles his nomination in this category (for ‘Everybody Needs a Best Friend’ from Ted) to be the making or breaking of his performance on the night.

Should win: ‘Skyfall’

Will win: ‘Skyfall’

Best Sound Editing/Mixing

Stop pretending you care.

But for what it’s worth I’m calling both for Life of Pi.

Best Production Design

As was the style at the time: Lincoln’s stellar production design

Another potential shocker that could turn up just about anything. Certainly Anna Karenina was intriguing to behold, and Life of Pi did some remarkable things with its visuals. But bigger is surely better in these sorts of categories, so The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Les Misérables and Lincoln seem the better calls.

Should win: Anna Karenina or The Hobbit

Will win: Lincoln

Best Cinematography

Shadow play: Roger Deakins's cinematography in Skyfall

Shadow play: Roger Deakins’s cinematography in Skyfall

Roger Deakins has quite horrifyingly never won an Oscar, and while it would be unlikely for him to finally win for a Bond film, it isn’t impossible Skyfall could nab this one. Still, Seamus McGarvey’s luxuriant Anna Karenina and Claudio Miranda’s magisterial work on Life of Pi are almost too much for Deakins to counter. Janusz Kamiński’s bright yet dreary Lincoln looks real and beautiful, but is perhaps too drab for Academy tastes. Robert Richardson’s work on Django is more than anything what creates that film’s style, but away from its frankly gorgeous exteriors, it has not much to offer. Another tough one to call.

Should win: Roger Deakins or Claudio Miranda

Will win: Claudio Miranda

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

"It's the beards": The dwarves of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

“It’s the beards”: The dwarves of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Oh right, this is still an award. Um… The Hobbit? Actually, going by traditional winners Hitchcock will probably nab this. But no, I’m saying The Hobbit. If only for making Christopher Lee look in his 60s (he’s 90!).

Should win: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Will win: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Best Costume Design

All dressed up and somewhere to go: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Michelle Dockery and Keira Knightley in Anna Karenina

2012 was the year of not one but two dreadful Snow White films, but both deserve a bit of credit for the costume work, and here that credit is. The late Eiko Ishioka could well receive a posthumous Oscar for her work on Mirror Mirror, but the film was so frankly despised it seems improbable. Snow White and the Huntsman seems even less likely a winner. With Les Mis vying for a top spot with Lincoln in terms of historical realism, the eye-melting costume work of Anna Karenina, by Jacqueline Durran, has a very good shot at stealing the title, especially if diamonds can count as costuming.

Should win: Anna Karenina or Mirror Mirror

Will win: Anna Karenina

Best Editing

There were no standout examples of editing nominated this year, and thinking back on 2012 it’s hard to think of anything exceptional that has been cut from the list, either. Zero Dark Thirty was the real disappointment, after the phenomenal editing Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker displayed. Lincoln and Silver Linings Playbook were both edited efficiently but without flair. While Tim Squyres tied Life of Pi together beautifully, the energy created by William Goldernberg’s editing of the opening 10 minutes of Argo more than makes him deserving of the award.

Should win: Life of Pi or Argo

Will win: Argo

Best Visual Effects

Film school: Life of Pi's astonishing whale

Film school: Life of Pi’s astonishing whale

Snow White and the Huntsman gets another nod here, and will go home empty-handed and undeserving. The Avengers and Prometheus will cancel one another out, leaving this a battle of scale versus creativity. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey could win out through sheer force of everything, but it seems unlikely to beat Life of Pi’s controlled, fluid and never utterly in-your-face world building. All the orcish hordes of Middle Earth can’t compete against the colossal might of a leaping whale.

Should win: Life of Pi

Will win: Life of Pi

And that’s the lot of them. How right I’ve been we’ll see on Sunday night. It’s the predictability of the Oscars that makes the upsets all the more shocking, and entertaining, so with any luck, for my sake at least, I’ve been very, very wrong.

If all goes to plan I’ll be live-blogging the event, so be sure to check back here, or follow my Twitter feed. It’s gonna be a long, fun night.

Well, maybe not fun. But long. Definitely long.

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, an expected prequel

Return to Middle Earth (again)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the answer is: eh… sort of?

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

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

More Gandalf! This guy never gets old!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thorin – handsome dwarven badass

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

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

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

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

3/5

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2012 in review – The year of archery and French wheelchairs

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

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

Archery!

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

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

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

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

French wheelchairs!

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

20. The Grey

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

19. What Richard Did

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

18. Anna Karenina

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

Full review

17. Argo

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

Full review

16. Looper

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

Full review

15. The Hunt

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

14. Lincoln

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

13. The Raid

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

Full review

12. The Intouchables (Untouchable)

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

11. Skyfall

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

Full review

10. Life of Pi

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

9. Holy Motors

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

8. The Avengers (Avengers Assemble)

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

Full review

7. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

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

6. The Master

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

Full review

5. The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists!

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

Full review

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

The Pirate Ship

4. Amour

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

Full review

3. Beasts of the Southern Wild

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

Full review

2. Rust and Bone

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

Full review

1. The Turin Horse

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

A Turin-out for the books

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

5. Snow White & the Huntsman

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

4. Haywire

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

3. Taken 2

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

Full review

2. Charlie Casanova

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

1. The Campaign

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

Here’s hoping for 2012!

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Hellboy II: The Golden Army – Review

In 2004 Hellboy made a ripple on the ever-growing superhero movie scene that was swallowed up in the wave of larger fare such as Spiderman 2. It was somewhat of a shame, as Hellboy featured one of the comic world’s more interesting and most entertaining of protagonists; one third repentant demon, one third Dirty Harry, one third moany teenager.

What Guillermo del Toro did with Hellboy should be admired, particularly in light of the fact that the film is essentially a big amusing failure. Part of the agreement in casting the ideal Ron Perlman in the lead role was that the budget ended up slashed. As a result, demon-hunter Hellboy ends up fighting the same monster over and over and over. And over. It wasn’t even that interesting a monster (on a barely related note, Sammael in fact looked far more like the hybrid of a Predator and a xenomorph than that monstrosity that turned up in AVP2 did). Also, the introduction of the character of John Myers, who was meant to be the awestruck human who eased us into this not particularly alien world of demons and whatnots, managed to weigh the film down more than any number of budget constraints could.

But due to an abundance of style and wit the film was crowd-pleasing enough to take a decent handful of cash and run for the hills. Combining that with the numerous Oscar wins and noms for del Toro’s stunning Pan’s Labyrinth, and a sequel to Hellboy was almost guaranteed.

So comes Hellboy II: The Golden Army, an embarrassingly colour-by-numbers sequel. Oh sure, they’re pretty spectacular colours (gone is the obnoxious dark blue tone of Hellboy that made the film too dark at times to even see – yes, it was nearly as obnoxious as that nauseating green hue from the Matrix sequels). But as I will continuously point out here again and again, production values cannot excuse a bad film’s badness.

Hellboy II has much of what you could ask from a sequel (and what many sequels nowadays fail to cash in on): the best of the cast return, the worst character has been written out and the action and spectacle have ante-upped considerably. Ron Perlman is so perfectly comfortable as Hellboy we could imagine he never took the make-up off in the last four years. Selma Blair sexes up her goth image from the first film to a far more pleasing degree. And while Doug Jones’s Abe Sapien still fails to crossover from comedic support to central character, his own voice is actually far more suited to the character than David Hyde Pierce’s over-stuffy re-dubbing for the first film. Best of all, Agent Myers is gone, although the fact that the film should even take a second to explain where he has gone (Antarctica) shows a level of compassion for the terrible character that he does not even deserve – no doubt audiences would have been happier to be left imagining all the terrible things that might have happened to him since the last film and be done with it.

What’s missing is the sense of doom from the first film. Here an embittered elf is determined to reap his revenge on mankind. Hellboy has to stop him. But the first film (and the comics as well, I understand) spent so much time highlighting how Hellboy himself was the doom of the world, that this plot seems bizarrely secondary, like an episode of a Hellboy TV show, or one of the admirable but similarly ignorable animated Hellboy movies, Sword of Storms and Blood and Iron. There are a few references to Hellboy’s greater (evil) purpose, but by in large the plot of this film seems to wish to overshadow it, which it simply cannot.

So yes, there’s evil elf (Luke Goss), and he has a trollish henchman, and they try to control a giant mechanical army. And Hellboy tries to stop him, by going largely against the book, and against his new father figure, ghost-in-a-suit Johann Krauss (whose very existence raises far too many questions). And all the way along it’s very very pretty. And Abe falls in love with evil elf’s twin sister. And it’s utterly unbelievable.

The fairest way to continue this review is to completely tear the film apart and then talk for a time about how pretty it is. Cause then we’ll all feel much better.

Hellboy was a funny film. There was wit, and an underlying sense of fun and joy in the subject, but that is largely gone here. Hellboy’s quips have become so stock that the film asks us to laugh purely based on the delivery. “And stay down” shouts Hellboy as he slams his bulky opponent to the floor. Ok, why not? Maybe there is no more suitable line available, but I’m certain anything would have been funnier. Even the cleverest line of the film, delivered by a disturbing infant growing out of some monster, is delivered with clumsy gurgling. It’s quite a shame really.

There are numerous other things to nitpick at, such as the sequence battling the tooth fairies in which the “red shirt” agents are boringly picked off one by one, or the Men in Black-stolen scene at the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense where Jeffrey Tambor’s FBI chief stumbles through his lines so awkwardly it seems he never saw the script (oh yes, it’s clearly meant to look like he’s flustered, but it makes for terrible cinema).

But Hellboy II’s biggest failing is it is patronising – oh so patronising. Perhaps more so than recent Spiderman or Superman films. And it’s a tragedy coming from the same filmmaker who broke so many rules with Pan’s Labyrinth. Even Agent Myers looks like a helpful narrative construct compared to some of the scenes in this film. For example, the emphasis on the connection between the two elf twins could not be any more heavy-handed. By the time we reach the film’s climax only two people in the audience don’t know what’s going to happen to the villain and neither of them are expected for another five or six months. Speaking of babies, the baby plot adds almost nothing to the film bar a bone of contention between Hellboy and Liz. So Hellboy has to grow up now; well he always did – that was the point of the first film, why does he need a baby (babies) to change that?

Countless parodies have been done in the last few years of how to make a sequel to a superhero film, and disturbingly it is Hellboy II, a film that could have been groundbreakingly (or at least tremoringly) different, that hits almost every single clichéd note. The superhero is unveiled to the public (in a slow-motion musical explosion sequence that is simply terribly executed), the villain implies that the hero is more like the villain than those he protects (queue Willem Dafoe-style cackling), the people he protects turn against him, he is left mortally wounded but saved by love, etc. It’s so by-the-books it could bring you to tears. It even concludes with Hellboy triumphantly “quitting the force”, only to leave himself and his team stranded in Northern Ireland (they strut triumphantly in the opposite direction of their plane). There are no excuses, not from a director who has become such an icon filming a source material that has been considered so out of the ordinary. He co-wrote the script with Mike Mignola himself!

All that considered, it is very pretty, and in the end this was always going to be a test run for del Toro’s shot at The Hobbit. And the clockwork-fetishist has undoubtedly impressed, with his team creating some remarkable visualisations. The Troll Market, although perhaps not as grand in scale as it might have been, is so brilliantly laid out, and populated by such bizarre and interesting beasties that one doesn’t know what to admire most. Make-up, puppetry and animatronics create creatures that are as much Uruk-hai as they are Skeksis, a wonderful combination of available technologies – further hinting at what joys The Hobbit might bring.

Most enjoyable of all is the film’s opening, in which the story’s prologue is narrated in a marionette-style fashion that recalls Anders Rønnow Klarlund’s 2004 film Strings. Charming, if far too early a peak for the film.

The sequence in which the elemental god covers the city in glowing grass could not have been done better without flying Miyazaki in to show them how it should be done. Character designs, such as the legless goblin (with a surprisingly authentic Northern Irish accent), the elf king and Death (truly noteworthy) are all the signs of a master filmmaker, who is simply slumming it with an incomplete script. The final battle against the clockwork army in the clockwork palace atop a clockwork floor is notable not just for the impressive choreography but also for being a CG action sequence which never really feels confusing. It’s a sign of just how far the technology has come and the good it can do in the right hands.

Alas these were the right hands at the wrong time. A beautiful experience does not a good film make. While del Toro is clearly still learning – he has admittedly created here a villain who is not just evil for the sake of it as in his previous films – we certainly should have expected more from this, and it goes to show that in terms of storytelling he is still far behind his compatriots Cuarón and Iñárritu. It had been such a strong summer in terms of blockbusters, it’s somewhat of a tragedy that a director so reliable should let himself down so greatly.

2/5

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