June 10, 2010

The Year in Film, so far

For the past 7 years I have kept lists of every film I see in a cinema. I see just under 100 films, in the cinema, a year. This year, I decided to write mini-reviews, or "reviewettes" for all these films. These are not full reviews, but more a collection of my thoughts on each film. I may have a shot at writing full reviews later. This is catching up on what I've seen so far, so I apologise for the size of this post (way-hey!).

The Princess & The Frog
Princess & the Frog marks the return to the hand drawn cel animation (and singing) that made Disney the animation powerhouse it is today. And while this is no instant Disney classic, the likes of Aladdin or The Lion King, Princess & the Frog more than stands (or hops) on its own two feet.
While some have pointed out the parallels between Disney’s first black princess, and America’s first black President, I think the genesis behind this jazz-age New Orleans set tale lies earlier: in Hurricane Katrina. The Princess & The Frog is almost a love letter to the old New Orleans – the voodoo, the jazz, the mardi-gras atmosphere.
This is a charming enough film, with some winning characters (including a Cajun firefly and a trumpet playing ‘gator), but stacked up against The Great Disney Catalogue, it falls *just* short of true classic status.

12.01: The Lovely Bones
I have read the book, but I haven’t read it in a couple of years, so I cannot really speak to the film’s fidelity to source material. However, I don’t think it’s all that much of an issue – a film adaptation of a book has to work as a film in its own right. Yes, it shouldn’t go changing things willy-nilly, but it doesn’t have to be slavish to the original text.
Saoirse Ronan, Susan Sarandon and Rose McIver all do exceptional work as Susie Salmon, her grandma and sister respectively; but its Stanley Tucci as the creepy Mr. Harvey who really stands out. Funnily enough, his seems to be the most fleshed out character.
Jackson uses montage a little too much for my tastes. It’s like he and his writers wanted to get some relevant point across (eg. Grandma being terrible at housework) and, instead of incorporating it into the story, throws in a montage showing this. Other times, such as Susie’s sister breaking into Mr. Harvey’s, Jackson’s direction is superb and sublime. But it's not enough, and it ultimately never comes together as a whole.

18.01: Avatar
This marks the second time I’ve seen Avatar and while still impressive on a technical scale, and being an unparalleled spectacle, the story still doesn’t quite engage me. I wasn’t really expecting anything incredibly original, but absolutely nothing, story or character-wise surprised me. In the slightest: outsider white-man infiltrates the natives, at first to betray them but as time goes on he becomes one of them and, eventually, their saviour. Ho-hum. And that Sully’s growing connection with the Na’vi and Pandora is told through montage and voice-over really doesn’t help.
However, Stephen Lang is still a joy to watch as the scene-stealing and chewing Col. Quaritch – the man is such a hard-nut ball-busting tough-ass, he puts out his burning arm when he’s damn well got the time. Sam Worthington really shows why he’s being talked up here – a vast improvement since we saw him last in Terminator: Salvation. Zoe Saldana, if there’s any justice, is on her way to be being a major star.

30.01: Up in the Air
I’m not sure how much I really have to say about Jason Reitman’s follow up to Juno. I have, in fact, been trying to think of something to say for the past few days. While the performances are fine (Clooney almost doing a deconstruction of his screen persona) and the whole affair comes together quite nicely, the film feels… light. Perhaps I’m missing something here; I’m just not sure what. Clooney’s character, let’s be honest here, is a bit of an asshole. Sure, he’s a charming asshole, but still a bit of an asshole. He fires people for a living. Sure, he’s pretty nice and understanding about it but the reason he does the job, the only reason? To earn air miles.

14.02: Percy Jackson & the Lightning Thief
It’s not going to be the new Harry Potter – nothing is. Potter was/is a publishing and film phenomenon. Percy Jackson is quite a decent successor though. The film itself is better than the first Potter by a long shot. This is quite something considering they were directed by the same man – Chris Columbus. He’s obviously come some way since that franchise entry, and possibly enjoying the relative lack of pressure in this adaptation. The three teen leads do a fine job each; if Logan Lerman is to be the new teen Spider-Man, he’s not a bad choice for the role. You also have Sean Bean as Zeus and Uma Thurman as Medusa and unfortunately, neither of them really have much to do: Zeus is there to be peeved about his missing lightning bolt and Medusa is one of the stops on the quest to save Percy’s mother.
While many films have been released in an attempt to become the new teen fantasy franchise (The Spiderwick Chronicles, Narnia, The Golden Compass etc.) and had varying degrees of success, I personally have hope for this one. A well as really digging the Greek mythology aspect I think Columbus has set up the world nicely and there is room for expansion.

20.02: The Wolfman
I’ll start off by stating I haven’t seen the original, Lon Chaney starring Wolfman or, in fact, ay of the classic Universal Monster movies. I have no personal connection to them, aside from recognising them as the classic monster movies of yore and the pop culture references they have spawned. Now, having said all of that: I thoroughly enjoyed the new Wolfman. Perhaps a part of that enjoyment is the visceral thrill of seeing a big old fashioned gory creature feature on the big screen.
Honestly, I didn’t think this was going to be anywhere near as good as it was; especially with the well known troubled production history it’s gone through. But it does seem to have come together remarkably well. The photography is gorgeous and atmospheric, the effects admirably practical (for the most part; there are the occasional uses of CGI), the action gory and horrific and the acting superb.
Benicio Del Toro is a natural replacement for the haunted looking Lon Chaney Jr., his deep eyes betraying the haunted sadness within. Anthony Hopkins appears as if from another film; what that other film could be I have no idea. His is a brilliantly demented performance. Emily Blunt is wonderful and manages to be more than the simpering woman in peril; despite not having all that much to do she manages to make her presence felt.
So, even though he only came in 2 weeks before the start of shooting, Joe Johnston has managed to pull together a wonderfully scary, horrific, gothic and atmospheric new take on the Wolfman that doesn’t seem to disrespect the source material.

21.02: Toy Story/Toy Story 2 Double Feature
What a treat to catch these masterful, groundbreaking films at the cinema again. And as a double feature! While the animation may look a little dated now (especially Toy Story) these films have more heart, intelligence and downright humour than most other animated movies today.
Toy Story 2 remains a seminal film for me. It’s one of those perfect sequels; it doesn’t rely on re-treading the same ground, or throwing in a bunch of needless new characters. It instead builds on the characters and their relationships: with each other, and with Andy. But more than that, the film speaks of growing older, and the inherent pain of that. You could easily replace the toys with parents and get the same emotional punch.

23.02: Shutter Island
From the opening of Scorsese’s latest, you know you’re in for something… other. The music is relentless and ominous. The action, washed out. I also don’t know if it’s because I had already guessed the “twist” ending before I even sat down, or if it’s really because Scorsese isn’t focussing on it. Sure, there’s a twist there, and when it’s fully revealed it is something of an emotional gut punch, but it’s not the true focus of the film. Instead, Scorsese is using genre material to examine themes of delusion (particularly self), violence and guilt. All wrapped in a fantastically creepy and atmospheric package. It’s a strange detective tale with distinctively suffocating overtones.
DiCaprio is once again giving his all here as a damaged man. He still looks young on the outside, with weedy facial hair, but you can see the pain etched into his eyes. Michelle Williams is a haunting presence as Teddy’s deceased wife; both within the film and her performance. Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow are suitable creepy as the island’s administrators with something to hide.
What saddens me about this though is that everything, from the music, the cinematography, the performances and the direction, is so far above the story/source material. But then maybe I’m putting too much emphasis on the “twist” here.

07.03: Alice in Wonderland
Well, there’s no doubt this is a Tim Burton film – you would actually have to be blind to miss it. And therein lays its strengths and weaknesses. So while the film is beautiful to look at, it really does look like every other Tim Burton film, especially of the last 10 years or so.
I’m not really too sure what else to make of it. It certainly felt...wanting. As if Burton wasn’t all there; as if he was just following the “a Tim Burton film” formula and didn’t dare deviate from it. In fact, the more I think of it, the less original the whole enterprise feels. This Alice seems to be a mash-up of Alice In Wonderland, Narnia and even a bit of The Wizard of Oz tossed in for good measure (“Oh, Mad Hatter, I’m going to miss you most of all...”). It’s like Burton is doing a mish-mash of popular kids fantasy films through the lens of a pastiche of a Tim Burton film.
I can’t shake the feeling that Burton, like his Alice, has lost “much of his muchness”. Here’s hoping he can find it for his next film.

21.03: The Goonies
The Embassy Theatre in Wellington is continuing a fantastic trend of classic films on the big screen lately, and I was lucky enough to catch that 80’s favourite, The Goonies.
The Goonies, if you grew up with it as I did, is a fantastic film. I have read a few things lately that have called the quality of the film into question, noting that it doesn’t really stand up. While, yes, the film may not be one of the greatest ever put to celluloid, I can’t help but love it. And only part of that is nostalgia. I mean, yeah, I wanted to be one of the Goonies when I was a kid (specifically, Data). And yes, the film is a bit shaggy with some dodgy performances and the effects don’t quite hold up. But The Goonies does have a lot of three things: charm, adventure and fun. They’re things that are sadly missing from a lot of kid’s films these days. Thankfully, The Goonies is missing the “destined saviour” line that is so prevalent in kid’s adventure films.
If you weren’t a kid when you first saw The Goonies, I don’t know if you’d really like it; I feel like you wouldn’t truly “get” it. The Goonies were, simultaneously, just like us and who we wanted to be. They were a gang of friends who played pranks on each other, swore, messed up, broke things, laughed together and at one another and got in trouble together. Who didn’t want to have a gang of friends and trek off on fantastic, death defying adventures defeating murderous criminals and solving old pirate mysteries when they were young?

25.03: Green Zone
When you get right down to it; past all the “shakycam” work, past the disorientation/immediacy of it all, Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone is a pretty standard thriller. Possibly even more so than the Bourne films. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if Greengrass is wanting to maximise the number of people through the door.
I don't really have too much else to say on it. It was a finely made film, with superb performances all round. It was just, at least from where I was sitting, preaching to the converted a little.

26.03: How to Train Your Dragon
My appreciation of this film may be a little biased – I really dig dragons and Vikings. In addition, this has some truly breathtaking (as in, literally taking my breath away) flight scenes; and that sense of flying freedom has been one of my honest wishers since I was a child. So, I really quite loved this film. I appreciated it the more so for the overall lack of “ironic” pop-culture references usually found in Dreamworks’ Shrek franchise. Thankfully, the directors of one of Disney’s freshest films, Lilo & Stitch, are behind this.
Instead of snarky jokes and irrelevant pop-culture references we instead are treated to something with real heart and a genuine sense of adventure. The voice cast all do admirable work, and I appreciate that they’re not all big time celebrity actors slumming it as voice-actors. Instead they all bring real character to their voice-acting, something that’s a lot harder to do than it sounds. You’re not continually trying to guess who the actor doing the voice is; instead you just get swept up with the characters.
And again, those flight sequences. I absolutely thrilled to them, and here is where the 3D really kicked in. I was gripping my seat, moving with the characters as if I was flying. And that’s what it felt like; there are twists and turns and you’re not sure what’s up and what’s down... And then they break through the clouds and, wow. There’s some real beauty created there.

07.04: Antichrist
Ok, Lars von Trier’s Cannes shocking psycho-sexual, cabin in the woods horror. At this point, I’m not entirely sure what to make of this film. I’m not sure it’s something I really understand, nor do I think I ever will. My brain, essentially, just isn’t wired for this sort of thing. I think it’s fantastic that there’s room in the world for these types of films – confusing, personal, angry, defying expectations – I’m just not sure I can fully appreciate them.
As to the infamous shocks – I’m no stranger to terrifying images on screen. While I haven’t put myself through the almost fetish like violence of Hostel or Saw, I have seen films like Bully (which I came out of literally shaking), Irreversible and Un Chien Andalou (famous for the eyeball sliced by a razor). And where Andalou was graphic, it was (as it always is in film) faked.
What I really take from Antichrist is that it is a film of oppositions – there is some truly beautiful imagery here, as well the shockingly violent and graphic; male and female; order and chaos; rational thought and animalistic behaviour; European art film and exploitation horror. It’s a tough film, but not necessarily a good one. I certainly didn’t “enjoy” it, and I don’t think I took all that much away from it. It does demand a response though; this is certainly not a film where you can “switch off” your brain. You have to engage, even if that engagement is to pull away.

09.04: Good Hair
Chris Rock’s documentary on black women’s hair and their search for “good hair” is an entertaining glimpse into a world I previously knew nothing about. It’s interesting for me, as a white male Kiwi, to watch this and essentially re-evaluate everything I know about black women’s hair. We’re so accustomed to seeing black women with straight hair; it’s easy to forget this is not natural (and sometimes not even their own natural hair). Usually, a black woman with straight hair has a weave. That is, other hair (usually from Indians) woven into theirs. Or masses and masses of chemicals to help straighten it.
What Rock touches on, is how unnatural this all is, and trying to find out why straight (read: white) hair = good hair. he never achieves answering his own question, but the search is more than entertaining.

09.04: Kick-Ass
Ho boy. No. Scratch that. Holy frackin’ jimmy what, wow! What a film, what a thrill ride, what an adrenaline shot! Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of Mark Millar and John Romita Jr’s comic-book flips a middle finger salute to all other comic-book movies. While also having the best godsdamned time being one of them.
The film starts out as an exploration of what might actually happen if someone was fool enough to go out and try to fight crime in a costume (get beat up a lot, become a YouTube sensation). But before long the foul mouthed, purble be-wigged Hit Girl slices, swears and dices her wee way into the film. As engaging as Aaron Johnson’s Dave/Kick-Ass is, Chloe Moretz’s Hit Girl is the film’s secret weapon.
Ultimately, I think Kick-Ass works as a satire of the comic-book film better than Watchmen did: where Zack Snyder's adaptation of the Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons graphic novel felt stuffy and drained of life, Kick-Ass brims with action and energy constantly propelling us forward. There’s a lot hinted at (the link between superheroes, sex and violence for example) and there’s more that’s pretty damned explicit: Aaron Johnson’s almost pastiche of Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man and Nicolas Cage’s Adam West vocal impression. And really, I need to take another moment to talk about Nicolas Cage; this is one of his finest performances and his best since Adaptation. He plays an unhinged weirdo, sure. But one with a kooky sense of humanity and sadness.
Vaughn also proves himself a master of action scenes. Each and every one has its own feel, its own rhythm and intent: there’s the confusing and brutal fight outside the diner with Kick-Ass and thugs; the entrance of Hit Girl, a whirling dervish of death; the bravura, thudding assault by Big Daddy and, of course, the knock down, drag out, absolutely off the charts final showdown.

11.04: The Road
Bleak. That’s the word to describe John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee trudge through a desolate post-apocalyptic wasteland, struggling their way towards the coast and the vague, nebulous hope of... something. Not salvation – the apocalypse has come and it has destroyed everything. No crops grow. No animals thrive. Humanity is hanging on by the barest thread. Civilisation is dust.
Like I said: bleak. Thankfully, Mortensen and Smit-McPhee are so engaging we have something to grasp on to. Plotwise, there's really not a lot to it. There is no 3 act structure, no salvation at the end of the road. It is just continuously... bleak.

12.04: The Men Who Stare at Goats
Gregor Jordan’s The Men Who Stare at Goats is entertaining enough, but it feels like something of a missed opportunity. The tale of the US Army’s experiments into paranormal warfare and the resulting link to current “enhanced interrogation” techniques is a damned interesting one. This just doesn’t manage to pull it together. It doesn’t help that the framing device of Ewan McGregor’s journalist feels unnecessary, and just plain wrong-footed. Unfortunately, like Up in the Air, this is one more Clooney film from this year that I'm really struggling to talk about. There just wasn't much there for me.

12.04: Bronson
Tom Hardy plays what should be a star-making turn as Michael Peterson/Charlie Bronson: Britain most famous criminal. A man who has spent 34 years in various jails, with 30 of those years in solitary. Yet he’s never killed anyone. He has, however, been in lots and lots of fights. And taken a few hostages. As Nicolas Winding Refn and Hardy portray him, Bronson is a man who can only fully express himself through violence.
It is interesting to watch this and compare and contrast Bronson and its depiction of violence – almost artistic – with Kick Ass, which takes an equal..., joy, perhaps, with its depiction. Whereas the joy in Kick Ass comes from the overall direction, Bronson is the joy of Charlie Bronson. I think it’s more that each film let each action scene/moment of violence have its own rhythm and purpose.

22.04: The Hurt Locker
I finally, finally, got to see this. After more than a year passing from seeing the first trailer, to the various amazing things I heard about it all the way though the Oscar race... FINALLY. And in the cinema – I held out for that. No ordering the DVD from Amazon.com (not least because I don’t really blind-buy), or watching friends’ copies who had ordered it from Amazon.com.
So, how does it stand up to that long wait, and weight of expectations? Pretty damned fine in my books. It’s an impressive work of film, succeeding where the recent Green Zone and Men Who Stare At Goats didn’t quite. The narrative to be had is spare – this is no typical Hollywood type film. There’s no main villain or bad guy; instead where with these bomb disposal experts, notably the on-the-edge Jeremy Renner as he lands in with a new team (replacing guy Pearce who gets blown up spectacularly in the film’s opening minutes). From there it's a study of this man who willingly walk into immediate, mortal danger with a balls of steel and an addiction to the thrill.

25.04: Boy
Damn Taika Waititi. Damn his talented ass. Boy has already become the highest grossing NZ comedy here at home – and it’s easy to see why. Once again (after Eagle vs. Shark) locating the action in a small NZ town on the coast, a lot of people can recognise the characters and identify with them too. It is fantastically, bravely kiwi – and 80’s kiwi at that. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays overseas – notably in Australia and the UK. I hope they can give it a fair shake. It’s a pretty universal story (coming-of-age with, as one of the tagline puts it “What happens when you find out your hero is a egg?”)
One of the best things about Boy, and there are a few, is that it shows a real progression, a definite growth, in Waititi as a filmmaker and story-teller; despite the film focussing on younger characters. While Boy, his brother and cousins may be younger in years than Jemaine Clement’s character from Eagle vs. Shark, they’re a lot more mature. The whole film feels a lot more mature. It just feels… more. There’s more genuine heart and concern for the characters.
It’s really, really good to see a great kiwi comedy up on the big screen, devoid of any cultural cringe while not glossing over anything. With Boy, Waititi is almost becoming this generation’s Billy T., but working in film.

29.04: Iron Man 2
Favreau, Downey Jr. et al sure had their work cut out for them for the follow up to their surprise 2008 hit Iron Man. The level of expectation was huge, especially as Iron Man continues to be Marvel Studio’s flagship character – the gateway to introducing the rest of the Avengers. And in the few weeks since I first saw Iron Man 2 and now writing this, there has been a lot of feedback on the film. Decidedly mixed. Some seem to have dug it, while others have really hated it. No-one seems to have loved it, and I don’t think anyone really could. It’s a strange beast, in that the whole thing is really more of a teaser/middle issue for the rest of the marvel films. It does work in its own right, but not really as well as it should.
I come down on the side of the lovers; even more so after my second viewing. I was actually a little surprised at how much more I enjoyed it that second time around; perhaps it helped knowing what to expect, or perhaps it helped that I understood more that Tony Stark is the real villain of the piece. That’s right: the main bad guy is Tony Stark. He’s the cause of his own downfall, especially in the drunken party scene (a nice little nod to the Demon in a Bottle storyline from the comics). Tony Stark/Iron Man is certainly no Bruce Wayne/Batman. And thank gods for that.
There are some inherent problems with Justin Theroux’s script, no doubt about it: the guff about Tony dying with the digital crossword infection and his miracle recovery with the new element (hidden in a park layout! That his father did some 30 years ago!) are a bit of a stretch. The final showdown with Whiplash is, like the showdown with Iron Monger, anticlimactic.
However, on the plus side, we have a collection of wonderful performances (Sam Rockwell in particular) and some very kick-ass action sequences. And it’s fun.
I, for one, am really looking forward to where Downey Jr. and Favreau take ole’ Shellhead next. I’m hoping they’ll learn from the (valid) criticisms levelled at this one and bring us an Iron Man 3 that blows everyone away. Just in time for The Avengers.

23.05: The Losers
In a year that also sees the release of other men-on-a-mission flicks, The A-Team and The Expendables, The Losers is the first outta the block.
It’s an enjoyable enough film, with a great cast who trade some witty banter. And there’s really not too much more to it, there’s nothing particularly new and exciting in the execution, but neither are there any massive missteps.
The cast of Losers are uniformly excellent; Jeffery Dean Morgan once again showing has fantastic natural charisma, Idris Elba once again pulling off second-in-command duties and Chris Evans as the wise-cracking tech expert. Zoe Saldana gives as good as she gets, both in terms of banter and in terms of action. And everyone seems more than happy just hanging out with one another, trading banter and some fisticuffs.
There are a couple of things that stick out; mainly to do with the antagonists – Jason Patric as Max is less than intimidating while his offsider has slightly less personality than a block of wood. Max’s devilish plot is nonsensical, far-fetched and plain unnecessary. Sonic implosion bombs? A sci-fi techno nonsense that isn’t required.
The Losers: enjoyable enough, with not too much else going on besides. There’s some laughs, some thrills and some explosions. We’ll see how The A-Team stacks up.

1 comment:

  1. Love seeing your take on these films. We have seen 23 so far! Yay unlimited movie cards. I'll be posting my first-half round-up at the end of June, with mini reviews like this.

    Glad you're blogging, I'm really enjoying it so far.