Tag Archives: The West Wing

Lincoln – freedom at any cost

Clothed in immense power - Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln surveying the horrors of war

Clothed in immense power: Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln surveying the horrors of war

There is a spirit that runs through much of American history, often buried these days in the politics of our age, of never giving up the fight. Though the USA has often taken far too long to join the fight (world wars, civil rights issues), once it starts, change, and victory, follow rapidly. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, the director’s latest historical “epic” and his finest since Schindler’s List, is a study of a man who has already fought enough, yet still fights on.

Opening in the closing days of the Civil War, Lincoln finds the South in retreat and the stately president, played with near-divine presence by Daniel Day-Lewis, doubting he has done enough to secure the Union for after the war. The Emancipation Proclamation, perhaps Abraham Lincoln’s most famous decree, was not law but presidential order, telling the armies of the Union to free any slaves rescued from the Confederacy. Believing enormous change can come sooner rather than later, Lincoln sees the president attempt, against the recommendation of his advisors and his wife, to push through a legally binding end to slavery.

Showing remarkable restraint by a director who has never before known the meaning of the word, Spielberg ignores the battles and sieges of an undoubtedly cinematic war in favour of telling a story of political machinations and social justice. He and screenwriter Tony Kushner, the playwright behind the magnificent Angels in America who also co-authored Spielberg’s troubled Munich, are far more concerned with the man beneath the stovepipe hat and his surely impossible mission than with the conflict between brothers that tore America apart. This is character drama of the highest order, which also finds plenty of room for grandstanding speeches and backdoor political shenanigans.

With outstanding attention to period detail, Lincoln slowly but rhythmically clicks along, building towards the Congressional vote that will decide the future of a nation and allow Lincoln to end his war. The film feels like a three-episode arc of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, with fluctuations between strong drama and jaunty, exciting meetings between his political moles and less staunch Democrats who may be swayed to vote for the abolition of slavery.

Linc'dIn: David Strathairn and Daniel Day-Lewis discuss political strategy

Linc’dIn: David Strathairn and Daniel Day-Lewis discuss political strategy

The sets are fantastic, with the floor of Congress superbly lit by cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, while the interior of the White House is swamped in dark colours, as if in mourning for a country at war, a people enslaved and the president’s recently deceased son William.

Day-Lewis gives a towering performance in the lead role, carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders while still being given over to telling amusing anecdotes and showing moments of human weakness. He eschews the traditional Gregory Peck-style deep-voiced impersonation in favour of a historically accurate, higher-pitched and somewhat raspy voice that carries Lincoln’s pain and exhaustion perfectly, while also showing that voice as a hurdle the president can overcome when passion and fury require it of him.

Giving Day-Lewis a run for his money is Tommy Lee Jones, as Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, a bullish radical more devoutly anti-slavery than the president himself. His cutthroat performance, overlaying a powerfully but subtly humanist character, carries a huge amount of the film’s emotional punch. As Mary Todd Lincoln, Sally Field is strong, though prone to melancholic melodrama that feels out of place in her scenes with Day-Lewis’s restrained performance.

Several of the supporting players convince, with David Strathairn, Michael Stuhlbarg, Stephen Henderson and particularly James Spader – as moustachioed political lobbyist/shyster William Bilbo – proving themselves ideal casting. Jared Harris is sadly underused as his historical doppelganger Ulysses S. Grant, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt sleepwalks his way through the underwritten role of the Lincolns’ eldest son, Robert.

Punctuated with fine moments of humour, and unimposingly accompanied by John Williams’s suitably swelling score, Lincoln is never less than a brilliant period political drama. Through its balanced script, restrained direction and its superb central performance, it lets the all-too-often overshadowed goodness of the American dream shine earnestly forth.

4/5

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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

————————————————————————————————–

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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The Cabin in the Woods – Review

It's twisty

(Disclaimer: since the spoiler police are out in force, I will make it clear that the following review gives away minor plot points, or “spoilers”, from the first 20 minutes or so of the film. None of the major revelations or twists are revealed, only a basic sense of what makes this film noteworthy. If you wish to see this film tabula rasa, turn back now…)

On paper, comedy and horror should mix about as well as an Adam Sandler cameo in The Wire, and yet for generations now writers have seen the uses of this unlikely genre clash. James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is as much a camp comedy classic as it is a commentary on the folly and hubris of man. Comedy in horror can lull you into a false sense of security, or calm you down after a fright. It can satirise and scrutinise. Sometimes it’s the horror itself that is funny. Almost 80 years after Bride of Frankenstein, through countless B-movie pastiches, The Evil Dead, Scream and the Final Destination movies, we come at last to The Cabin in the Woods.

Co-written by Joss Whedon, who altered the layout of modern horror with Buffy the Vampire Slayer through its post-feminist heroine and pop-culture-obsessed demons, this on-the-surface by-the-numbers scary movie was always going to be a clever beast; perhaps a little too clever for its own good. But throw in co-writer and first time director Drew Goddard, who penned several episodes of Buffy and Lost as well as giving a failed defibrillation to the monster movie genre with Cloverfield, and this ultra-self-aware horror pastiche takes on a life of its own. Like Doctor Frankenstein, Whedon and Goddard struggle to control the monster they have created.

The plot thickens... sexily!

The writer duo revel in horror movie clichés. Five attractive college kids take a break for the weekend to party at a secluded cabin that is as inviting as it is spine-chillingly terrifying, à la The Evil Dead. But there’s something very new in this film, too. Elsewhere, in a high-tech facility – or what might have passed for a high-tech facility in the early ‘90s – a pair of technicians settle in for a busy weekend of their own. When the horrors start befalling the unfortunate youths, the mysterious technicians are able to witness it all through Big Brother-like hidden cameras. Soon they’re placing bets on what gruesome fates will befall the victims. But why?

Twistier than a giant cobra, The Cabin in the Woods relishes in sending up the horror genre. The college kids begin the film with modest character profiles: Chris Hemsworth plays buff group leader Curt, who is also an A-grade student on a sociology scholarship; Kristen Connolly is Dana, the cutesy one who has just ended an inappropriate relationship with one of her lecturers. But as the film goes on, the characters all descend into horror movie clichés: Curt becomes an alpha-male anti-intellectual bully; Dana becomes meek and sexually conservative. The opposite seems to happen to Marty (Fran Kanz), who starts out the ultimate horror movie trope, the stoner kids, all puffs and quips. Against type, he is the first to become alert to the fact something very strange is happening in the cabin.

"Oh shit, we're in a horror movie, aren't we!?"

The most fun happens at the facility, where the technicians (almost forgotten one-time Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins (The Visitor?) and The West Wing’s Bradley Whitford) switch between discussing their curious work and banal topics such as how to baby-proof an apartment. When two of the inhabitants of the house begin to have sex, the technicians frustratedly question whether or not the camera angles will allow them to see breasts – a question raised millions of times by adolescent-minded males of all ages while watching horror movies.

After cleverly establishing itself in the first act, The Cabin in the Woods stumbles into average horror movie territory in its midsection – it cannot parody without falling prey to the necessary beats and rhythms of the genre. The film is redeemed in spades however by its unpredictable, inspired and hysterically manic final act. To say any more would be to spoil one of the most unexpectedly surprising sequences you will see this year.

There’s plenty of the signature Whedon wit on display, and some pleasingly nasty horror too. The film may not be the deconstructionist masterpiece that early reviews might have you believe, but it is fun and smart and a worthy entry in the list of great revisionist horror movies. Its finest achievement is the sly suggestion that every horror film ever made has had its own pair of technicians puppeteering events. In that way, Cabin in the Woods has really left its mark on the genre.

3/5

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

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Boldly going where all of these people have gone before…

I could never call myself a Trekkie, but that’s not to say I could never have been one. What I saw of the original Star Trek series as a child never turned me off particularly – albeit I was bemused by what threat plasticine blobs and Nazis could offer a heavily armed starship – but it was ironically my obsessive nature which stopped me from becoming a devout Trekkie in the first place.

In order to have become one, I would have had to have seen every episode from start to finish in rough order, and not just pick and mix on alternating weekends at my father’s house. Had I ever properly gotten into Star Trek, you would all fear me and the wrath of my über-geekdom.

Strangely  I have always had a passion for The Next Generation for the very reason cited above; I was able over the years to catch almost every episode on the telly as they came and went, and for those I missed I borrowed a complete guidebook from a neighbour and studied it diligently (and embarrassingly).

So yeah, as Trekkies go, I am FAIL. So much so that I only saw The Wrath of Khan for the first time last summer. I have never seen The Motion Picture, nor a single episode of Enterprise. But I do rank the TNG episode ‘Cause and Effect’ (the déjà vu one) to be one of the best episodes of a TV drama ever made (other members of that esteemed list are Lost’s ‘Deus Ex Machina’ and The West Wing’s ‘Two Cathedrals’).

So it would be fair to say I never had particularly high hopes for JJ Abrams’s revamped Star Trek, and I was never one to hide my criticism. But it wasn’t out of love for the originals or a feeling of treading on sacred ground that it bothered me, but simply a lack of timeliness to the project that made it feel wrong for now. The last two TNG films had been so poor (from the snippets I saw while angrily ignoring them) that throwing a new Star Trek into the mix that was looking backward rather than forward seemed strange to me. Does one have to go back to the beginning to fix what only went wrong along the way? Let’s hope not, or George Lucas will be announcing a reboot of the original Star Wars trilogy within days of now.

I was surprised then when the reviews started coming back so extremely positive. How could this be? Well, I should have seen it coming, what Abrams’s Star Trek has going for it is something decidedly simple but unique – it’s a blockbuster!

And no, I don’t mean to slam the previous Star Treks (since when has being a blockbuster been definitively a good thing?), nor imply weak box offices across the board. But there has always been something decidedly B-movie-ish about the majority of Star Trek films; they never lost touch with the fact that they were glorified episodes of good TV shows. Sometimes it worked delightfully, and other times it didn’t.

But Star Trek is undoubtedly an enormously mainstream, high-concept, high-budget ($150 million?!), audience-pleasing movie machine. Its CGI rivals the best the Star Wars prequels ever offered, its script is full of punchy dialogue, and there’s a sexy young cast who fit so snugly into their already worn roles that one suspects genetic tampering has been used to clone a second superior generation to crew the Enterprise. Just think – somewhere out there a hairless baby is being bred to be Jean-Luc Picard in forty years.

What they’ve done here is take an original idea and make it brighter, faster, sharper, funnier, surprisingly less camp, and suspiciously likable. There’s no doubt that this is the Star Trek film that anyone can enjoy with ease. The young characters are all introduced as new – there’s a few gags for the fans but baring the time-travel subplot not much that would require any foreknowledge of the series.

It’s not without its faults. Eric Bana as the Romulan villain Nero stoops almost as low as he did as Henry VIII in The Other Boleyn Girl – it’s a desperately written role, but he has nothing to bring to it that couldn’t be performed by a lobotomised Nicolas Cage.

The monster action sequence on an ice planet has vomit-inducing echoes of The Phantom Menace and seems determined to satisfy awkward cinemagoers who time the interval between action scenes and leave if unsatiated.

Similarly, much of the comic relief could have been left out – Simon Pegg makes a surprisingly impressive Scotty, but making him act the complete fool is an insult to the character, the actor (and his forebear) and most of the isle of Britain. Pairing him with a sidekick who is the freakish offspring of a Jawa and one of those coral people from the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels hardly helps. The ‘Scotty in the water pipe’ sequence is so painfully out of place it deserves a right booing, but then it seems to be there to satisfy both the comic relief seekers and those who think a potential death is “exciting” or even an action sequence.

Speaking of potential deaths for characters who will clearly not die, young Kirk dangles from a precipice a total of three times in this film, not including his battle with a giant bug thingy on an ice slope.

In hiring an almost perfect cast for the Enterprise, Abrams has allowed himself to get away with a lot. Essentially by rewriting the past he has all but deleted four TV series and ten films from the Star Trek canon, allowing himself and his successors to craft an entirely new universe in which to boldly go. Leonard Nemoy’s rather charming cameo is used as the royal seal to decree this new Star Trek law.

Thus, what’s most unfortunate about the project is that it essentially fails to deliver on its own premise. Star Trek was billed as an origin story for a series epic in scope. It would explain how these characters that have been adored for forty years now came to share the deck of this starship. But it simply doesn’t do that, because the time is all wrong.

The very rewriting of the time frame by Nero’s evil nastiness changes the events that Trekkies were promised by this film in the first place. This is not how Kirk came to be in Starfleet, because Kirk had a father who raised him right, while this one does not – and if we learned nothing else from The Boys from Brazil it’s what a difference a dad makes.

Similarly Spock never lost his mother (Winona Ryder, oh how you shoplifted your career to death) nor his home planet. And how did Scotty actually come to be a member of the Enterprise crew when not prodded by alternate universe Kirk and future Spock?

Abrams has created an origin story to a completely (well, not completely!) different series; a series he will no doubt helm for some time (coincidently his former pet project Lost has been hammering home for months now that time-tinkery is ultimately fruitless).

One hopes he will continue to do a decent job with it, and that in time the Trekkies will either come to love it – or rise up in rebellion and demand their universe be put to right.

Regardless, if in fifty years time I see an alternate universe reboot of Star Trek: Voyager I will be the first to hunt down the aging Mr Adams and break both his crumbling knees.

3/5

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Going Home: Back to the Furor

It’s good to be back.

I would simply love to tell you that my absence can be explained away by vacations, lottery wins and exotic hours spent with countless beautiful women, but it would be far more honest to say that I’ve done next to nothing but watch The West Wing for the entirety of the last month. That said, I am getting through it at a rather impressive speed that should allow me to reach my previously announced (and might I add ambitious) declaration.

It is odd firing through a show this fast, seeing as I really should have been watching it when it initially aired (I haven’t watched this much TV since I sat through the entirety of Day 1 of 24 in one day). Television has very much held a distant second place in my life over the last several years due to my excessive (slash obsessive) film watching, and other shows (most obviously The Sopranos and The Wire, amongst others) have taken back seats with the boot wide open and no seatbelts.

It is no doubt ironic then that my West Wing bingeing has consequently resulted in my film watching batting average plummeting. I have managed to squeeze in maybe a dozen films in the past month, an undoubted, though explainable, embarrassment for me.

Here are some interesting things I have learned in the last month:

  • Das Boot is too long, but the ending is just about worth it
  • Three viewings is enough for Capturing the Friedmans
  • Roland Emmerich’s 10,000 BC is literally a paint by numbers how-to-make-a-basic-Hollywood-blockbuster, but there is almost fun to be found in its utter continent-shifting nonsense
  • On a fourth (fifth?) viewing, Potemkin is still as brilliant as it always was, even the fifth part didn’t cause the usual fit of yawning
  • Superbad hit a little too close to home a little too often
  • Ten deserved a second shot
  • Administering heroin to policemen will improve their crime-fighting capabilities – it’s easy to see now why Chaplin got blacklisted
  • Watching Local Hero and the Season 2 finale of The West WingTwo Cathedrals’ in close proximity will cause a Mark Knopfler overload that will make it literally impossible to get his music out of your head and remind you why teenaged you used to freaking love Dire Straits

More thoughts on The West Wing will follow. For the record I should be finishing Season 4 tomorrow night, and am currently averaging four episodes a night.

When this is all over, I may need some help moving on.

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A Better Tomorrow

At 4am this evening Barack Obama was announced the incumbent president of the USA. History has been made and will be discussed with greater fluency elsewhere. John McCain has now graciously stepped down from the race. I cannot express how much I hope I have for this to positively effect not just America but the world.

For the last 8 years America has neglected its role as a beacon of goodness in the world. Similarly, I have neglected television for the art of cinema. As a result, inspired by the victory of Obama, I hereby announce my candidacy for watching the entirety of The West Wing before the end of the year.

These are special times.

In the meantime, this link will no doubt be of some interest.

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