January 30, 2012

Film review: WAR HORSE

I initially had absolutely no intention of seeing Steven Spielberg's adaptation of the World War I set novel & play, War Horse. Almost nothing about it appealed to me; in fact the only things that did were the WWI setting and the Beard himself. However, after reading a number of positive reviews and reactions online, I decided to give the film a chance. This was Spielberg after all, and World War I is a war far less cinematically enshrined than it's sequel, WWII.

Unfortunately, after the two-and-a-half hours of runtime my reaction to the film was very under-whelmed "Meh".

Which is not to say there aren't moments of sheer beauty, horror and genius. Moments that use the full array of camera, editing, performance and music tools at Spielberg's disposal to brilliantly moving effect.

But those moments, as fantastic as they are, could not get me to connect with this film. Essentially World War I through the eyes of a horse, I found myself unable to connect emotionally. Spielberg does his utmost to invest the horse, Joey, with a surfeit of personality even going so far as anthropomorphising him at times. But, as great as these efforts were, I couldn't connect to the horse and, by extension, the story.

I certainly couldn't connect to Joey like lead human character Albert Narracott (newcomer Jeremy Irvine) does. The love this young man has for this horse is... well, intense. He's there at his birth and, when his father (Peter Mullan) drunkenly outbids their landlord (David Thewlis having oodles of scheming bastard fun) for Joey young Albert is overjoyed. However, to keep the farm afloat Albert's pa ends up having to sell Joey to a young officer in the Army. The young Army officer, a kind eyed Tom Hiddleston, is the picture of upper class English politeness. The Great War was a new kind of warfare; old rules of engagement were becoming obsolete as new, more advanced weaponry, made a mockery of them. When the English charge a German machine-gun nest it is a massacre, Spielberg masterfully cutting around the bloodshed with shots of riders in a field and riderless horses leaping over machine-guns.

Young Joey then ends up in German hands being looked after by two young brothers. From there he's taken in by a young French girl and her grandfather before being re-drafted by the German army. In this way he criss-crosses the borders of the war, his story giving all-too brief glimpses into different lives and experiences of the War.

And that's what they are - glimpses. Spielberg knows how to get a lot out of them, but I was still left with no central character I felt connected to. Not all of the images are immediately striking - or at least, not in a good way. Spielberg's usual cinematographer Janusz Kaminski saturates the film, laying the soaked in syrup tones a bit much at times.

And one of the things I found myself most annoyed, perturbed and a little confounded by was the continuing cinematic trend of having foreigners speak to one another in perfect English; something that is especially noticeable when there are English characters in the film as well. It is a cinematic tendency I understand - the folk are talking to one another in their own language but the audience are "hearing" it as English - but I think it's long past time we moved on from it. It really is a piece of arch theatricality that only served to take me out of the film and, frankly, I would have expected different from Spielberg.

I can see what was being aimed for with War Horse and, for a number of people, it definitely worked. I just wasn't one of those people. I never felt nakedly manipulated by Spielberg; it simply never connected with me and thus there was no emotion to pull on. 

January 25, 2012

Film review: THE WHISTLEBLOWER

This is one of those all too rare films I had never heard of until it was released. I'll clarify: I read a lot of film news and reviews, across a number of different websites and blogs, based here in New Zealand and overseas and I had, not once, come across any mention of The Whistleblower. It's odd enough I felt moved to mention it here. And to also ponder the confusing nature (from an outsider perspective) of international distribution. Why is it The Whistleblower is afforded a theatrical release in New Zealand while other small-medium films - Super, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil etc - are released straight to DVD, months after they've played internationally? Perhaps a question to be explored in a longer post.

The Whistleblower is the true-story of Nebraskan cop Kathryn Bolkovac who takes a job as a peacekeeper/supervisor in post-war Bosnia and comes to find herself involved in investigating prevalent trafficking of female sex slaves. She's a tough but caring character, an honest cop apparently taking the job for the big pay-day which will allow her to move closer to her daughter. Her expectations and sense of Western morality are challenged once she's actually got boots on ground - the majority of her fellow peacekeepers seem to have no experience in law-enforcement and crimes against Bosnian women, Muslims especially, are all but never investigated. The successful conviction of an abusive husband leads to her being appointed to a Women's Affairs role where she where she comes across a dodgy, dingy Bosnian bar. There is evidence not only of women being sexually abused and trafficked across the borders, but that UN employees are active participants.

The film is structured like a police procedural thriller - the uncovering of evidence, the horrific crimes - but the sense of tension never really extends to Bolkovac. There is no real point where it feels like she herself could be in any real danger. Oh, there are some threatening phone-calls and there is increasing evidence of the higher-ups attempting to cover everything up, but there is no threat of physical harm to her, or even threats to her reputation. So while there is a genuine threat of harm and possible death hanging over the poor girls who are abused and degraded, Bolkovac feels largely untouchable. Weisz is, of course, an easily assured presence as Bolkovac as she tries to navigate the confounding bureaucracy surrounding the post-conflict area.

More frustrating the sense of flat tension though, is the cinematography choices. Honestly I'm about at my limit of close, shaky camera work; there's is something to be said for a well-constructed and laid out shot. This type of camera work no longer serves to bring me in closer to the action but instead distances me by making itself known.

The Whistleblower is a decent enough, generally pretty intelligent film that really isn't too much more than that. It doesn't really achieve any sort of screaming indictment or powerhouse presentation: the power of the film comes from the actual true-story itself, rather than any effort from the filmmakers. Again, which is not to entirely deride it or them. Everyone does fine enough work here. There are appearances throughout from other great actors like Vanessa Redgrave, David Strathairn, Monica Bellucci and Benedict Cumberbatch with painful and powerful work from the unknowns playing the poor girls.

And this is all in service of telling us about very real, very horrific historic events; events that serve to anger any right-minded individual. The extent to which the UN heads are shown to be complicit in derailing the investigation to avoid scandal is an indictment on everyone involved. It's just that the film doesn't achieve anything more than that; it doesn't fully engage and involve it's audience. 

January 11, 2012

IN APPRECIATION OF... ROBOCOP

"Come quietly or there will be... trouble."
I love RoboCop. No, that's not quite right. I unashamedly and unreservedly fuckin' love everything about the film RoboCop. I love the violence, the humour, Peter Weller, the 80's futurism, its subversiveness, RoboCop's MASSIVE gun, Miguel Ferrer, ED-209, ED-209 squealing, exploding Emil, Kurtwood Smith, Paul Verhoeven's balls, RoboCOP POV, "I'd buy that for a dollar!" and just damned everything.

The first time I ever watched Paul Verhoeven's muscular vision of a dystopian future, RoboCop, was on VHS, recorded off the telly. It was a, somewhat random, double-feature with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and those two films were my introduction to cinematic violence. While I was perhaps too young for RoboCop (the memory of my exact age has become dimmed with increasing age) I thrilled to it. The violence, while not disturbing me as much as the heart extraction in Temple of Doom, was certainly extreme. And I was far too young and immature to fully grasp the larger themes that Verhoeven was interested in. But something of them trickled through; something of the twisted humour, the rather anti-authoritarian and anti-corporate stance.

In the years since I have become a fan of Paul Verhoeven. The man has had his fair share of Hollywood stinkers - Hollow Man, Showgirls - but his standout films - Total Recall, Starship Troopers, Black Book - have been works of demented, uncompromising genius. 1987's RoboCop was the director's first major Hollywood work and is typical of his style and carries many of his cinematic quirks and obsessions; a propensity for gruesome violence, distrustful of corporate/government institutions and greed, science-fiction and a frank openness to sex and sexuality. Don't forget, this is a man who grew up in the Netherlands during the time of Nazi occupation and was surrounded by destruction and death for some of his most formative years.

But he melds, combines, synthesis these ideas and themes with a thrilling cinematic action-film. It has been stated that Verhoeven saw the character of RoboCop as a Christ-like figure; the shotgun blasts to officer Murphy's hands and arms representing the stigmata, while the shot to the head represents the Crown of Thorns. Murphy is then, of course, reborn. I love that a Verhoeven vision of Christ is a cyborg law enforcer carrying a massive Beretta in his leg. Or, more specifically, Verhoeven's vision of an American Christ - when words and turning the other cheek fails... BLAM! BLAM! BOOM!

Let's not forget that RoboCop is not solely a creation of Paul Verhoeven. In point of fact he initially rejected the script by Ed Neumeier and Michael Miner. Neither of them have written anything particularly decent since (Neumeier also wrote Verhoeven's hilarious and splattery Starship Troopers) but with RoboCop they managed to capture something of the zeitgeist.

In fact, I very much doubt if a film like RoboCop as it currently exists would be able to be made in today's Hollywood system. Past the surface details of the explosions and production design, RoboCop is a film brimming with ideas, subtext and thematic explorations. It's the kind of intelligent, yet still thrilling popcorn-entertainment, science-fiction that Hollywood doesn't really do anymore. That ground seems to be covered by lower budget films like Primer, District 9 and Monsters. 2010's Inception probably came the closest to a big-budget but still intelligent science-fiction film in recent years. But compare Nolan's dry, well-constructed intelligence and entertainment to Verhoeven's gory, funny, pop-infused, slyly subversive ride. To me, there's no contest. I know which film I'd prefer to watch over and over again.

From RoboCop, there have been any number of other works spinning out from the original film; a couple of sequels, a TV series, cartoons, video-games and  comic-books. He's faced off against Aliens, the Terminator and probably Rocky Balbooa. I'm quite happy to say I've not seen, read or played any of these. RoboCop remains, to me, a singular experience. Even if RoboCop 3 promised a RoboCop with a jetpack. The design of RoboCop, for all the arguments and near-fisticuffs that went into it, is iconic. The man behind the creation of that suit, the Rick Baker trained Rob Bottin, and Verhoeven by all reports clashed constantly, at one point almost coming to blows. Of course, none of that really matters; the proof of their work is up there on screen: RoboCop. A character so iconic, there was a movement to erect a statue to him in Detroit and who, bestride a unicorn with a very strong back, became a popular internet meme in 2008.

There is, as there always is, talk of a remake floating around. It's talk that has been in the ether for a number of years now. At one point it looked increasingly likely that Darren Arronofsky was going to be the one to bring it on home. And he would have been one of the few directors I actually would have trusted to do something interesting with the material. Like him or not, Aronofsky always has something to say in his films. However, he walked and it seemed as if RoboCop 2.0 would either fall by the wayside or be picked up by some hacky hack with nothing interesting to say like McG, Scott Derrickson or Len Wiseman. Instead, the current man attached is Brazilian director Jose Padilha. After seeing his Elite Squad II: The Enemy Within I'm a little happier about the remake. Elite Squad II was a solidly entertaining genre film, with a lot to say and an effective way of saying it. Could RoboCop be Padilha's RoboCop? Padilha has stated his film will explore more of what it means to be a man turned into a machine; Padilha is aiming for something more philosophical and less political it seems.

Approaching RoboCop as an overtly political film and statement is an interesting exercise and the comparisons to Neumeier and Verhoeven's Starship Troopers are readily apparent. Both men are on the political left; both liberals, yet both of these films can be seen as fascist and right-leaning. I instead see them as poking fun at these sorts of ideas, approaching them in a tongue-and-cheek manner. It's a delicate balancing act and Neumeier and Verhoeven just manage it. The use of fake news broadcasts, commercials (the 6000 SUX and Nuke 'Em boardgame) serve to set-up the wider world in amongst some truly absurd humour. Essentially, they're setting up an incorporated, fascist world and undercutting it at the same time.

But let's not forget: RoboCop is fun. A hell of a lot of fun in fact. When I watch it nowadays, I'm more aware of the ideas and themes going on in the film - RoboCop as a Christ-like figure or as a man struggling to regain his humanity; the send up of the "greed is good" mentality; the film even serves as a template for the modern superhero origin story. But there's a part of me that will always be that boy thrilling to the imperfect, B-movie, iconic, violent, funny, low-brow and deliriously glorious RoboCop. I hope to experience it on the big screen one day.

Part man. Part machine. All cop. Yer damn right.

Further watching:


RoboKid - the cutest little cyborg-crimefighter around. With a signed photo from RoboCop himself, Peter Weller.

Total Recall - Verhoeven's adaptation of the Philip K. Dick short-story We Can Remeber it For You Wholesale starring Arnie, Sharon Stone and a chick with three tits. Another insane & pulpy sci-fi ride with some larger questions lurking just below the surface. "Get your ass to Mars!"

Starship Troopers - the first Verhoeven film I saw in a cinema and one that is hilarious, explosive and fantastically bone-headed at times. Casper van Dien and Denise Richards are no great thespians but Neil Patrick Harris and Michael Ironside are a lot fun. "D'you wanna live forever?!"

Black Book - Verhoeven's first film back in his native Netherlands since his move to Hollywood. An epic, moving and just downright stunning film about one Jewish woman's attempts to survive during the Nazi occupation.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension - the Peter Weller starring cult classic that really is quite mad. Description doesn't really quite do it justice. "I've been ionized, but I'm okay now."

Elite Squad and Elite Squad II: The Enemy Within - RoboCop remake director Jose Padilha's first two feature films; excellent action films with a political message of their own. 

January 7, 2012

THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN

Like a lot of people (including producer Peter Jackson), I enjoyed the adventures of Herge's coiffed boy reporter when I was young. Heck, my Dad enjoyed Tintin books when he was a kid; Tintin is a character who has been around world literature for some time with any number of kids growing up with him. I can still remember the first adventure I ever read - Tintin in America - and still have a firm favourite in the two-part Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon (somewhat betraying my early interest in sci-fi). So the Peter Jackson produced, Steven Spielberg directed, performance-captured Adventures of Tintin had my interest piqued.

It is an interesting choice Jackson and Spielberg made, going down the route of performance capture. They wanted to capture the distinctive look of Herge's characters and world but with a more realistic look; an exaggerated realism if you will. This of course meant that they could then cast pretty much whoever they wanted. Nevertheless Jamie Bell as the eponymous hero and Andy Serkis as the irrepressible drunk Captain Archibald Haddock are spot-on.

Opening with a fun credit sequence filled with the sorts of adventures typical of Tintin and reminiscent of his Saul Bass inspired Catch Me if You Can, Spielberg then takes us into the world of the film via a rather neat cameo. It's not long at all before the boy reporter finds himself in a whole mess of trouble - at the market he finds a rather stunning model ship which he purchases just before two other gentlemen show an interest. One is a little more forceful - the devious Sakharine (Daniel Craig). This model ship leads Tintin and his faithful terrier Snowy on a globe-trotting adventure with mutineers, a water-plane, kidnappers, a desert, pirates, the bumbling detectives Thomson & Thompson (Simon Pegg & Nick Frost) and a drunken no-hoper ship's Captain by the name of Haddock.

The script by Brit geek-geniuses Stephen Moffat and Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish is a propulsive ride, taking Tintin & Snowy (and, later, Haddock) from encounter to encounter with barely a moment to catch your breath. Those three writers are a trifecta of perfection, in terms of genre filmmaking and writing; Moffat's run on Dr. Who has been universally acclaimed as he balances single episodes with a larger mythology and Wright & Cornish have, between them, made four modern classics, each film fully aware and playing to it's genre. Spielberg makes the script dance and Tintin, Snowy and the audience are all quickly caught up in this adventure; this quest for the secret of the unicorn.

And I think there's a distinction that has to be made here - between action and adventure. The Adventures of Tintin is sure filled with its fair share of action but it is primarily an adventure film. A film about adventure, directed and produced by two of the greatest purveyors of modern-day adventure cinema. Spielberg, when firing on all cylinders as he is here, can craft an action sequence like few others, knowing exactly when to bring them in and how to play the audience through them. He melds that with Herge's world and sense of humour, as filtered through Moffat, Wright & Cornish, to create a number of stand-out gags throughout. There's Tintin attempting to grab a set of keys from a room full of sleeping thugs - one who is notably missing his eyelids altogether; there's Snowy leaping in and out of the background and foreground, going after sandwiches and seeing off big dogs; there's Captain Haddock misfiring a bazooka, shouting in splenetic fury and drinking every drop of alcohol he can get his hands on.

Andy Serkis once again proves himself to be the pre-eminent performance capture artist working today; his Haddock is the life and soul of the film. Where Bell's Tintin is intentionally left as something of a blank, Serkis' Haddock is a rough, world-worn and soulful character. And a lot of that is thanks simply to the performance of Serkis. You can add Haddock to the growing list of timeless characters Serkis has brought to life. The criticism I have with regards to the performance capture animation may just be me but I occasionally felt like the characters were lacking in weight. Some of their movements struck me as 'off' and unnatural; understand that none of this is poor work or a large distraction. Indeed, I have some trouble really putting my finger on what I felt to be 'wrong' here - is it just because I knew it was performance capture? Or were there really some moments that were not quite right? However, the entirely digital creation of Snowy is a wonder, helping to bring mischief and care to the adventure and he always feels entirely real.

Spielberg (with the more than capable assistance of the lads and lasses out at WETA) swings his camera wherever he damn well pleases. While this is another aspect of performance capture filmmaking I am on the fence about; where a swooping camera is allowed to go anywhere within a scene that can do anything with characters able to achieve impossible physicality, this is Spielberg and he is working with one of the most adventurous characters in literature. The Beard is a director who knows precisely where the camera needs to go and how to use the effect of 3D. I'm not the biggest supporter of 3D but neither am I the biggest detractor. When used correctly it can achieve effects like opening up huge vistas. When used incorrectly it can make the film look like a cheap diorama. While The Adventures of Tintin is a film I would happily watch in 2D and feel like I wasn't missing anything. In fact, it might even closer approximate the world of the original comics. It helps that Spielberg is one of the master directors of the modern age and thus understands how to utilise every tool at his disposal, 3D included.

Working from timeless and much loved source material (and culling from a number of Tintin adventures), Moffat and Wright & Cornish have worked up a fun, propulsive and intelligent script. Spielberg and Jackson have then gathered a note-perfect cast to help bring the characters to life. Spielberg, with WETA, has then taken all of these elements and filtered them through his own brand of cinematic alchemy to give Herge's intrepid reporter big-screen life. The Adventures of Tintin is Spielberg at his "fun, globe-trotting adventure time Spielberg" best. I look forward to seeing what Peter Jackson does with his follow-up adventure. 

January 5, 2012

2012: LOOKING FORWARD

Laptop? Check. Looking forward/up? Check.
Actual still from the film 2012? Check.
John Cusack? Check.
Result? PERFECT ARTICLE PICTURE

Yes, the Mayans have predicted that this is year the world ends. While I certainly don't believe it will (have we already forgotten Y2K?!), 2012 should nevertheless prove to be a big year for me, though perhaps not as film-watching focused as 2011. The reason being that, in the year to come, I will be heading back to school for the first time since 2003. I'll be doing the Masters in Scriptwriting at Victoria University. It should be, by all accounts, a challenging course and one I intend to fully exploit.

So, to be a poor student again. This will likely cut down on the number of films I can see but there are some films I simply have to see in 2012 and then there are those films I'm looking forward but are not quite as overly enthusiastic about. I've culled from a few places but these will, of course, only be the films that have announced release dates for this year. For example, will Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master get a release here in this calendar year? I doubt it, which is why it isn't on the list. There are also all those delicious surprises waiting at film festivals and during the year but this should serve as fairly decent overview (I apologise for the text heaviness of this post, but blogger was giving me a right headache with adding images for some reason):

The Films I Can't Wait For

Hugo
 Scorsese's 3D kids film that has already been receiving great reviews in the States is out this month in New Zealand. My eyeballs are preparing for the visual splendour and my brain is anticipating a new film from one of the Masters of Cinema.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
This is one of those films I have consciously avoided reading anything about because I just want to go in as blind as possible. I do know that its an intelligent espionage thriller set in Cold War era London with a top-notch English cast headlined by Gary Oldman. How could I not be looking forward to this?!

The Raid
You should really just watch the trailer here. You're welcome.

Young Adult
Diablo Cody, for all the ridiculous backlash that followed Juno and her Oscar win, is one of the smartest, funniest and most perceptive writers currently working in Hollywood. Continuing her work dissecting and discussing contemporary women, and re-teaming with director Jason Reitman, Young Adult looks to be blisteringly funny. Charlize Theron stars as an immature YA fiction writer who returns to her old hometown. With Patton Oswalt and Patrick Wilson also bringing the funny.

Shame
2011 was a good year for Michael Fassbender - he quickly became one of the most sought after actors in Hollywood following work in Inglorious Basterds and X-Men: First Class. With Shame, the story of a sex addict, he returns to work with his director on Hunger, Steve McQueen.

Corman's World
A documentary about the legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman who, thanks to his early work with Scorsese, Coppola and more, has possibly given more to the world of American cinema than anyone else. Should prove fascinating.

ParaNorman
A stop-motion film about a boy who can talk to the dead who has to help save his town from zombies, 
I'm hopeful that this is an oddball delight. The trailer looks fairly decent and it should at least be better than Hotel Transylvania, which has a neat idea but brought to us by Adam Sandler & co. 

The Avengers
Captain America. Iron Man. Thor. The Incredible Hulk. Black Widow. Hawkeye. The Avengers is a film unlike anything else, a superhero team-up blockbuster starring characters previously featured in their own films. I really hope Marvel and Joss Whedon have knocked this one out of the park. They need to.

The Dark Knight Rises
The FINAL film in Christopher Nolan's incredibly well regard Bat-trilogy, it is likely more anticipated than The Avengers. The trailer didn't really do much for me, and I'm still on the fence with regards to Bane as the main villain, but Nolan has promised that this is a definitive end to his Caped Crusader. I can't wait to see how it all shakes out.

Haywire
Soderbergh continues to confound and surprise. Haywire is really a cheap 80's action film idea - take MMA fighter Gina Carano and put her front-and-centre as a burned CIA agent on the run and out for revenge. But in the hands of Soderbergh and with an insanely good cast this should prove to be sublime entertainment.

Brave
The Pixar film for the year, this is also the studio's first feature to star a female protagonist. Also, after two consecutive sequels and a Monsters Inc. prequel next year, Brave is a wholly original production. Watching the trailer again, this is a film I can't wait for: deliciously gorgeous animation, a mythic and fantastic setting, Scots and surely more this is undoubtedly a new Pixar classic.

Looper
The third film from Rian Johnson, the genius director behind the tangled, high-school noir Brick and the big hearted con-man film The Brothers Bloom. Looper stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a mafia hitman who knocks off targets sent back from the future. But what happens when they send his older self (Bruce Willis) through? I can't wait to find out.

The Cabin in the Woods
This is a film I have been looking forward to for years. Initially due out in 2010 this smart horror-comedy was unfortunately caught up in the MGM finance/bankruptcy debacle. It is said to play with the conventions of the genre rather brilliantly. Coming as it does from Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard that really shouldn't be a surprise.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
You've seen the trailer, right? As... interesting a relationship I find I have with Jackson's Lord of the Rings films, I'm very much looking forward to The Hobbit. The original book was, after all, one of my favourite and defining stories as a kid.

Django Unchained
I think this really goes without saying doesn't it? A new Tarantino film is always something to look forward to and this is no exception. Jamie Foxx as a vengeful slave and Leonardo DiCaprio as a villainous slave owner all mixed in with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Christoph Waltz, Don Johnson and Kurt Russell.

Wreck-It Ralph
John C. Reilly stars as an 8-bit video-game villain who grows tired of the evil life and instead wants to be a hero. This could be something special but we'll just have to wait and see. Colour me intrigued.

Gravity
Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men) is one of the most interesting directors working today. This long gestating film starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock as astronauts may be his most ambitious yet. It'll also be in 3D - I'm drooling a little at the thought of Cuaron showing us space in the third dimension.

Argo
Based on a true-story almost too good to be true, Ben Affleck's latest directorial effort is about a group of CIA agents staging a fake film in order to extract six American's hiding in the Canadian embassy in Iran. Affleck has already proven himself as a director and, with a brilliant ensemble cast, this is easily one of my most anticipated releases of the year.

Cogan's Trade
Brad Pitt reteaming with his Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford director Andrew Dominik? Yep. You can count me in on that.

G.I. JOE: Retaliation
The appeal of this film for me can be summed up in two words and one person: The Rock. Dwayne Johnson is one of the most charismatic action stars of the last decade and, after slumming it in a slew of awful family films, he seems to have got his man-mountain mojo back (see Fast 5 if you don't believe me). Also, this trailer certainly helped.

The Other Films I'm Looking Forward To

Of course, 2012 is going to be a year packed with even more great films. What follows are those films I'm looking forward to seeing but that I'm not hanging out for:

Kill List - a horror/thriller from English newcomer Ben Wheatley that has been garnering a lot of positive press overseas.

The Amazing Spider-Man - the much ballyhooed reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, I'm still on the fence for this one. I really like the cast but the overly moody trailer for the film and that Marc Webb has only made one other film has me a little worried.

The Descendants - George Clooney paired with Sideways director Alexander Payne

We Need to Talk About Kevin - this well regarded adaptation of the Lionel Shriver novel actually played as one of the Secret Screenings at Fantastic Fest this year but I sadly missed it. 


Magic Mike - another Soderbergh film for the year, this time starring Channing Tatum in a film based on his days as a male stripper. Yes.

World War Z - I'm just not sure where I stand with regards to this. I like the general idea of it (Brad Pitt tripping about a zombie plagued post-apocalyptic world) but I just cannot get excited about a zombie movie any more. Filed under "wait-and-see".

Skyfall - emerging from the MGM debacle comes the latest Daniel Craig Bond film. I'm hoping the cast and crew are feeling re-energised and give us a great new Bond film.

Prometheus - there's a lot of geek-hype surrounding this "definitely not a prequel to Alien, no-sir, no-how" and I have to say... I'm not entirely feeling it. I'm liking the cast, the trailer was pretty cool but, but... but. Hmmm.

The Hunger Games - another year, another YA fiction adaptation... Though The Hunger Games could be something entirely different and could prove to be the star-making turn for breakout actress Jennifer Lawrence.

Dredd - another one to file under "wait and see", this could be a great, gritty adaptation of the popular 2000AD character. Or it could be along the lines of the Stallone starring Judge Dredd (probably not though).

John Carter - surely the most boring, derivative and uninteresting title for a truly fantastic film coming from pulp fiction roots. Pixar director Andrew Stanton is making his live-action feature debut with this adaptation of the Edgar Rice Burroughs hero - an American Civil War veteran who finds himself transported to Mars. Could be fun, could be lacklustre and underwhelming.

The Artist - this is making a lot of End of Year Best of lists in the States and looks to be an affectionate film about the silent era of cinema. From the crazy French guys who made the two OSS 117 films.

The Grey - Liam Neeson is a hard-assed action hero nowadays. Who knew? Joe Carnahan directs what looks to be a pared down survival thriller.

Rampart - Woody Harrelson has had something of a career revival of late, and this is a film that looks to continue that. He's received positive notices for his portrayal of an intensely corrupt LA cop and this could be a great new noir.

The Woman in Black - there's a fair amount riding on this one little film - it's the first major release post-Potter for Daniel Radcliffe and also the first big release for the newly resurrected Hammer films. The trailer is proper creepy and it'll be intriguing to see how Radcliffe does far-removed from the spectacle (and the spectacles) of Potter.

Act of Valor - an action film about Navy SEALS starring actual Navy SEALS. It could be a overly-patriotic mess featuring non-actors but it could also be an authentic, action-filled experience. In any case, it should be tougher than Expendables 2.

Anna Karenina - Joe Wright returns to period films and brings Keira Knightley along with him. Wright's Hanna was one of my favourite films of 2011 but I remain dubious about period films (for no real reason).

The Lorax - I love Dr. Seuss; I was raised on his nonsense verse and moral lessons. That said, I don't think there has been (or can ever really be) a feature film that captures his essential Seussness (although the little-seen 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T comes the closest). But the trailers for The Lorax look uncanny and possibly delightful. Also, Danny DeVito sounds perfect as the Lorax.

A Dangerous Method - Cronenberg. Mortensen. Fassbender. Knightley. Freud. Jung.

Jeff Who Lives at Home - the Duplass brothers' Cyrus was an unexpected hit of awkwardness and this Jason Segel and Ed Helms starring follow-up could see them continue to the mainstream.

Butter - a political satire starring Jennifer Garner, Hugh Jackman and Alicia Silverstone about butter-carving. Yep, competitive butter carving.

Wettest County - Australian John Hillcoat (The Proposition, The Road) directs this tale about bootleggers who face off against corrupt authorities. Tom Hardy, Gary Oldman, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Noah Taylor and Mia Wasikowska are among the talented cast.

Gangster Squad - now, if I knew a little more about the film itself this could have easily found a spot on my "Can't Wait" list. Set in LA in the 40's and 50's it sees the LAPD facing off against the encroaching East Coast gangs. With Zombieland's Ruben Fleischer directing Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Joch Brolin, Sean Penn, Anthony Mackie and Nick Nolte.

Dark Shadows - I'm not sure how I feel about Tim Burton. He has surely crafted some of the most delightfully offbeat and oddball films of modern times. But I also feel like he's become too set in his style and his last few films have been nothing but that style. Can this adaptation of an old TV show break the cycle? We shall see.

Premium Rush - Joseph Gordon-Levitt (one of the smartest, clued-up young actors around) is the bicycle courier who gets caught up in shenanigans involving a package to deliver and a corrupt cop (Michael Shannon). This is one that seems to have been around a while so it'll be intriguing to see how it shakes out.

The Five Year Engagement - Jason Segel and Emily Blunt are two very likeable actors and they'll be a big factor in determining if this romantic comedy works or not.

The Bourne Legacy - oooh, a dicey one this. The non-Bourne Bourne movie, action man of the moment Jeremy Renner steps into the CIA-trained assassin shoes with Michael Clayton director Tony Gilroy helming. Joan Allen and Albert Finney return, while Rachel Weisz and Edward Norton step up. Will it be the start of something new? Or a damp squib.

Killer Joe - Matthew McConaughey plays against type as a hitman. And remember, the last time McConaughey played against type we got the awesome Reign of Fire. The fact that William Friedkin is directing doesn't hurt either.

Lock-Out (MS One: Maximum Security) - the basic pitch is: Escape from New York... in space! Guy Pearce is a convict offered his freedom if he can rescue the President's daughter 
(Maggie Grace) from an orbiting prison facility. Could be great; could be crap. 

John Dies at the End - Phantasm and Bubba Ho-Tep director Don Coscarelli offers up a new slice of fantasy-horror genre weirdness. Another film I haven't heard too much from but one I'm looking forward to nonetheless.

Moonrise Kingdom - the new film from Wes Anderson, not much is known aside from a vague idea of the plot and the cast. And an interesting cast it is - Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDorman, Bill Murray (of course), Harvey Keitel and Jason Schwartzman.

Take This Waltz - Seth Rogen and Michelle Williams make an unlikely pair in Sarah Polley's directorial follow-up to Away From Her. I haven't heard too much about it, but the talent involved has me interested.

The Ides of March - foolishly missing my chance to see this when I was in the States, I can correct that when it gets a release in New Zealand early this year. A political thriller directed by and starring George Clooney as a presidential candidate and "Man of 2011" Ryan Gosling. Inteelligent political thriller? Yes, please.

Carnage - a comedy from Roman Polanski? With John C. Reilly, Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet as two sparring couples who's initially polite evening descends into fighting and chaos.

The Skin I Live In - also playing a Secret Screening at Fantastic Fest was Almodovar's latest, about a brilliant but demented plastic surgeon played by Antonio Banderas. I've actually yet to see an Almodovar film and I'm looking forward to rectifying that this year.

Two Little Boys - on my trip to the States I took along Duncan Sarkies' comic novel about two no-hoper Kiwi lads caught up in murder, betrayal and best friendship. It was, to quote Jermaine Clement, "really, really good". I'm quite keen to see what Duncan's brother Robert had made of the material.

Bellflower - a low-fi indie post-apocalyptic love-story I believe. This is another film I've heard initial good word on, and want to go in as blind as possible. 

29.12: THE MUPPETS

Repeats of Jim Henson's original Muppet Show played a large part in my upbringing. I grew up on the madcap antics of the felt covered puppets (in addition to Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock); I remember a well worn VHS tape of a great big Muppet celebration recorded off TV figuring large in my early life. Unfortunately, the Muppets have been on something of a downward spiral lately - their theatrical films petered out with the lacklustre Muppets From Space in 1999 and they haven't been on TV since the brief Muppets Tonight finished in 1998. Cue a cinematic rescue from one of the unlikeliest people: Judd Apatow alum Jason Segel.

Impressed by Segel's love of puppetry evidenced in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, he was given the task of re-introducing Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie and the gang to the modern world. Segel co-wrote and stars as Gary, whose brother Walter is the world's biggest Muppet fan. Walter is, in fact, a Muppet. He's someone who has found life to be difficult, what with never growing and being made out of felt, and the Muppets have offered solace, comfort and laughter. So when Segel and his fiancĂ©e Mary, the always adorable Amy Adams, head to LA for their ten-year anniversary Walter tags along to visit the Muppet Theatre and Muppet Studios. Of course, while on a tour of Muppet Studios Walter stumbles upon a plot by evil oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) who plans to buy up the Studios, demolish them and drill for oil. Thus Walter, Gary and a neglected Mary have to get the Muppets back together, in order to save the Muppet Theatre, Studios and very name!

The Muppets is a Muppet film made by lifelong fans of the Muppets and it shows. But not only is it a film made with a great deal of love and attention, it's a film that explores the place of the Muppets in our digitised, cynical world. In a time where kids are running around realistic virtual war zones, capping "noobs" and computer imagery has reached never-more-realistic highs the film dares to ask if there is still a place for a rag-tag gang of lovable, sweet and cheerfully anachronistic puppets made of felt and fur. The arc of the Muppets in the world of the film parallels the arc of the Muppets in real-life, which is coupled with a few moments of self-reflexive and meta humour to really bring the point home.

Oh, and I haven't mentioned it yet, but the film is also a wonderful and full-throated musical. The Muppet Show was a vaudeville influenced affair, with plenty of singing-and-dancing numbers in between the bad jokes and outrageous stunts. One half of New Zealand's own Flight of the Conchords, Bret McKenzie, worked on the songs for the film and it's a fitting match of writer and material. The musical numbers range from the fun and daffy (the opening "I've Got Everything I Need" and the very Conchords-esque "Man or Muppet") to the emotional and regretful (Kermit's "Pictures in my Head" and a reprise of the most famous Muppet song, "The Rainbow Connection"). There's not a bum note among them with Segel, Adams and the entire Muppety cast giving it their all and having a ball.

The Muppets may not be as madcap and loose as The Muppet Show often felt, but Segel and Bobin are aiming for a more emotional arc to the story. The Muppets haven't really been with us for some time and it's important to illustrate where they are now and their journey back. The Gary and Mary arc feels somewhat underdeveloped; Gary is protective of his brother Walter to the point of making Mary feel neglected. But that underdevelopment of the human characters' story feels like the right choice: this should be a film primarily about the Muppets. And it is. It's irreverent, self-aware, musical, stacked with bad puns and surreal gags (such as Chris Cooper's "maniacal laugh"), with just about every Muppet ever featuring in some sort of appearance. The ending however (which I won't be so churlish as to spoil here) feels confused and rushed, which is an unfortunate note to close an otherwise entirely enjoyable film on. The rest of the running time has been sweet, funny, unironic, smart, witty, lovable and with a fair few gentle jokes and more adult-oriented ones; there's nothing quite like the Muppets. It looks like they're back and bigger than they have been for some time. And the world is better for it.

I think it's also important to note that The Muppets had one of the smartest, funnest and funniest advertising campaigns in recent memory. Beginning with a faux rom-com in the shape of "Green with Envy" announcing the first teaser trailer and with further trailers parodying everything from The Green Lantern to the Girl With a Dragon Tattoo, the campaign not only succeeded in creating interest for the film but also served as reminders of the humour we loved from them in the first place. Clever advertising that is far too rare nowadays.

January 1, 2012

2011: MY FAVOURITES

Before I get into the rundown of my favourite films of 2011, there's something I just have to get off my chest. It is the end of the year and, as such, there are are a lot of these sorts of lists coming out now. Fair enough. What really annoys me though, what really grinds my gears, is the constant and lazy bagging of all Hollywood fare. It happens every year and it's the same complaints - sequels, comic-book movies blah blah blah. While there is a fair share of cinematic dreck every year, there's just as much nonsense coming from the low budget independent end as the big ole' blockbusters. There is nothing, nothing, wrong with a well made & intelligent Hollywood film. There doesn't always have to be a deeper meaning to the events on screen; don't forget that movies can be fun.

And gods, please don't think for a pico second that I am somehow advocating for all the product that comes out of Hollywood. There is a fair amount of it that is dreck - unimaginative, cash-grabbing, insulting garbage. I just think it's important to acknowledge those big movies that still worked, dammit. To tar all of them with the same brush in a wrap up of the year is lazy and insulting writing.


And I keep saying this, but I'll repeat it again: the reason I watch movies in a cinema is for the experience. And who says you can't have an equally valid experience/response to a well made blockbuster?

Ok, now that I've got all of that hullabaloo off my chest let's move it along to my favourite films from the past year (note: these are not the films I deem to have been the "best". These are merely my own personal favourites and, as such, this list is entirely subjective and doesn't aim to be anything more). All titles link to my original write-ups.

Boil the kettle and make a cup o' tea now. This is gonna be a big 'un.

True Grit

It's true that most people would consider the Coen Bros. Oscar nominated Western a film from 2010; the Yanks certainly would. But with the way international distribution worked with it, Mattie Ross and Rooster Cogburn didn't wander over our way until early this year. The brothers Coen crafted a Western that proved to be the exception to the "all remakes/rehashes are bad/pointless" rule.

Young actress Hailee Stienfeld all but up and stole the film right from under The Dude's nose, as she proved to be as fearless as her character, Mattie Ross. This mismatched pair, joined by a comedic Matt Damon as the puffed up Texas Ranger LeBouef, are as infused with oddity and compassion as any Coen pure-bred character.

And wrapping around those characters like a small-pox infected blanket are musings on vengeance, hardship and violence. This is ground familiar to the Coen brothers but it never feels like a retread of previous work or the Coens settling for something easy.

True Grit
 is a film I have been looking forward to revisiting and revisiting soon.

If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise

Spike Lee's HBO documentary focusing on the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke, gets something of a sequel in this 4 hour, 2 part examination of New Orleans and Louisiana 5 years on.

In the first half Lee revisits interviewees from the previous film, finding out about where they are now and how they're coping. He has a vast array of people on camera here; from regular folk trying to get their lives back together, to those who lost loved ones, to mayors, journalists, actors and more. It was almost like Lee felt the need to get all of this oral history on film, to have it be a part of recorded history and for these stories to reach out. There is anger, frustration, grief, art, laughter and hope.

The second half shifts its focus to a more recent disaster for the Gulf of Mexico: the BP oil spill. Just when the state was down, BAM, they get kicked in the nards with another horrendous disaster. As New Orleans was devastated by human error and mismanagement during a natural disaster, so too was the wider Gulf area utterly let down by these same factors during a man made disaster.

If God is Willing... played as part of the Documentary Edge Festival and was seen by me and the handful of people in the theatre with me, which is a damned shame. This is a film worthy of your attention and I encourage everyone to seek this out.

X-Men: First Class
Poster by Phil Noto
I really wasn't sure that Matthew Vaughn and co. could pull this off. Not only was this a reboot/prequel to a film franchise that screwed away most of it's good will with two rank sequels (X-Men 3 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine) but it was also an early tent-pole release with a truncated schedule. Vaughn was supposedly working on it right up until the premiere and the marketing materials (usually premiered at the previous year's Comic-Con for these types of films) didn't surface until early this year and were easily some of the worst of the year. So where the hell does Vaughn get off on releasing a fun, engaging and smart comic-book adventure like this?

Yes, fair cop, I'm a huge X-Men geek but, again, there was no guarantee this film was going to be any better than what came before. At best, I was cautiously optimistic. And then, after finally watching it, I was utterly energised. First Class is by no means a perfect film; the rush to completion is all too readily apparent in some FX work and the occasional slip back to an Irish brogue from the otherwise top-form Michael Fassbender. So too does t
he early relationship between McAvoy's cheekily laddish Xavier and Fassbender's embittered and vengeful Erik suffer; being otherwise impeccably played until having to rush players into their known positions come the end.

But what the film gets right, it
really gets right. There's a sense of fun and adventure to this film reminiscent of the early comic-books themselves, with Vaughn indulging his Bond appreciation and setting us up for a sequel (I hope).

Captain America: The First Avenger
Poster by Kevin Howdeshell
Ok, so Marvel have been moving towards something huge in their last few films and we finally get to see the results of that grand plan in next year's The Avengers. But all of that work would be for naught if the films leading up to this all-star team-up (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, this year's Thor and Captain America) didn't work or worse, didn't connect.

That was a particularly troubling issue given the name and flag wearing costume of one of Marvel's oldest characters. In the time in which Captain America was first created, World War II, he was a character that made sense: an all-American good guy socking Nazis on the jaw. Bam! Take that Hitler! In the decades since, however, the world has moved on from looking to America's might with many instead looking upon the land of the free disdainfully and seeing her inhabitants as shallow, obese and arrogant.

Thankfully Marvel and director Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer) set the film in Cap's original era of Nazi bashing, with added retro-futuristic gadgetry, and really get the fun adventure aspects of Cap, as he faces up against the dastardly Red Skull. In a time when the majority of genre and comic-book releases are unnecessarily "gritted" and darkened up, mistaking po-faced seriousness for depth, Captain America was a blast of unwinking, rock 'em sock 'em fun.

Though come the closing credits Cap wakes up in a world not his own (i.e. ours) in time for next year's team-up, I hope Marvel find more stories within his World War II exploits. The Star Spangled Avenger is a far more interesting character than his costume would suggest, and I hope to enjoy more of his adventures soon.

The Tree of Life
Terence Malick's Cannes winning meditation on nothing less than life, the universe and everything proved to be a divisive opening night film for the New Zealand International Film Festival. Some audience members, both here and overseas, were obviously put out by Malick's insistence on not crafting a typical dramatic film. Instead, his grand but imperfect film played out more like an epic, lyrical, visual poem or a massive cinematic Led Zep jam.

Taking in small town American life in the 50's, the creation of the universe, meditations on nature and grace and much more besides, there's a heady mix of imagery and narrative wandering. It feels very much like a kaleidoscope of life and experience. Accusations of pretension and needless noodling away are fair enough, but the sheer scope of Malick's ambition cannot be belittled or derided.

The Tree of Life is a film that can really only be fully experienced in a cinema, in the dark, with an audience. You have to allow yourself to be swept up in Malick's vision and be smacked in the gob with wonder and awe. Not getting up and pausing to make a cuppa, or watching on a ridiculously tiny in-flight screen (as it was available on my flight home from the States). Delicate, intimate, flawed and epic, The Tree of Life is the type of film becoming ever rarer nowadays. I was moved and utterly enthralled.

13 Assassins
Takashi Miike's epic was not the greatest viewing experience I've had this year (thanks to a thoroughly bored neighbour, obviously keen to leave and light up a ciggie) but the film itself was elegant and epic, allowing us time in this world of honour and duty before unleashing the unrelenting carnage Miike is known for.

Set at a time when the era of the noble samurai is coming to an end, a rare few dare to stand up to a corrupt, sadistic and power hungry young Lord before he consumes Japan. They are but a small band of warriors, voluntarily standing up to an army of hundreds. Death is not only on the cards, death is all the cards. These 13 warriors have a daunting task ahead of them but none of them flinch away from it, preferring to die with their brothers in battle than living a dishonoured life without them.

These are men bound by their task and Miike allows their humour and humanity to come through, before they come to the small village they plan to use as a bottleneck. This village is where the final, bravura, carnage soaked confrontation takes place. It's an exhausting assault but Miike knows how to construct a contained and extended action sequence.

This is Miike's most mature work by far and my hands-down favourite. Another film that really benefits from being seen on the biggest screen possible, 13 Assassins swept me up and was elegant, visceral, bloody and, surprisingly, quite touching.

I Saw the Devil
Poster by Kevin Tong
Holy shit, South Korea eh? There have been a number of outstanding and brutal films from South Korea in recent years; a trend perhaps set into high gear by the remarkable success of Oldboy.

I Saw the Devil is an intense, gripping and profoundly disturbing ride through the sweaty obsession with vengeance. After his pregnant fiancee is murdered by a notorious serial killer, a special forces cop hunts him down and exacts brutal, lengthy punishment. But this is merely the beginning and what develops is a cold, escalating game of cat-and-mouse with the roles constantly shifting between the cop and the killer.

The photography is arresting and the two leads are attention worthy presences. This film about the ugliness inside is often visually beautiful, with some of the most arresting shots of the year. Min-sik Choi gives a fascinating and disturbing portrayal of the serial killer, while Byung-hun Lee is an emotionally restrained machine.

Director Jee-woon Kim daringly provokes the audience into response at every turn, even going so far as to dare the audience to empathise with the hunted serial killer. A violent meditation on violence, the lengths and futility of revenge and the cost of it all, I Saw the Devil is the height of confrontational cinema and demands an intellectual as well as emotional response. It was an experience I am unlikely to forget.

The Giants
This Belgian coming-of-age film was a NZIFF film that caught me utterly by surprise and that doesn't happen often. The Giants was one of those delightful and all too rare surprises at Film Festival - a previously unknown gem tucked away in the massive programme just waiting to be noticed.

I went into film skeptical, cautious of whether I would be in for a treat or an overly-serious and self-conscious bore-fest. Thankfully, this tale of two abandoned brothers and their new-found friend is unhurried, charming, thrilling and something of an adventure. Much like growing up then.

The three boys are left very much to their own devices for the summer - mum and dad have taken off on a foreign trip, leaving the brothers with their grandfather. Unfortunately, he's dead and because mummy dearest is too busy to return any messages, the lads have to come up with... less than legal (albeit fun) means to get food and money. They get into mischief, laugh and fight and generally act like brothers. Running out of money they get together with their friend and organise the rental of their grandfather's house to a local drug-dealer. Getting into far more trouble than they bargained for, the boys end up living rough.

The Giants is a delicate wee gem of a film. Never hurried or fussy, it weaves its tale of three boys and one summer with a deft touch, never becoming sentimental or melodramatic. And that's why it makes it into my Favourites of 2011.

Martha Marcy May Marlene
This examination of a young girl escaping from a cult and recuperating with her older sister is one I was glad not to have heard much about.

Of course, if you've heard anything about it now, it's likely the breakout turn from Elizabeth Olsen as the titular escapee. She is an incredibly strong and assured central presence holding the delicate balance of the character's psychology (and by extension, the film) on her young shoulders. She is a profoundly damaged character, held in the thrall of John Hawkes' quietly menacing cult leader for gods know how long. Early one morning she escapes and is picked up by her older sister, who takes her in and tries to help heal her.

Writer/director Sean Durkin should be earning equal amounts of positive attention for crafting an intricate, stunning debut feature film. Martha Marcy May Marlene is at times challenging, tense and frightening, guided by a sure hand that never feels forced. I was just as impressed with this debut as I was with David Michod's Animal Kingdom last year - to show such intelligence, restraint and inherent knowledge of how to really wind up an audience in a debut film is nothing short of staggering.

I'm hopeful for some sort of release for the film here in NZ next year. Get out and see it if you can.

Troll Hunter
A found footage film that, after a deluge of them, really works. Beginning with three students making a documentary about a number of suspicious bear killings, things quickly take a dramatically bizarre turn when they decide to follow a suspected poacher.

Troll Hunter is, no doubt, one of the best genre films of the year. Effortlessly blending the fantastical with believable characters, humour, horror and excitement the whole film is a ride you don't want to get off of. You know how some films are often called roller-coaster rides? It's generally used in fairly lazy terms to describe a film with moments of excitement or loud explosions. But Troll Hunter is a film that really lives up to the label - it knows when to slow things down and let you catch your breath... before BOOM! More troll action!

Troll Hunter is smart and fun. It works by making you actually give a damn about the naive students caught up in the fantastic action. It is an increasing rarity in these types of films, usually populated with arrogant and stupid teenagers. It also helps to have everything centered around a grizzled and embittered Hunter named Hans (Otto Jespersen), one of the great fun characters of 2011. There's talk of a Hollywood remake (of course) but absolutely don't bother. Troll Hunter is where it's at and after 2010's Rare Exports (and the yet to be seen by me Valhalla Rising) offers further proof of a thriving genre presence in the old countries of the Vikings.

Tyrannosaur
Paddy Considine is an actor I appreciate seeing in pretty much anything he appears in. From his nervy journalist in The Bourne Supremacy to the surprisingly hilarious tough-guy farce of Detective Andy Wainwright in Hot Fuzz, Considine is an actor who has no troubles owning the screen. He comes across as an actor of deep intelligence, with a wicked sense of humour. I was anticipating his directorial debut Tyrannosaur not for anything I had heard about it, but simply for coming from Considine.

I was not disappointed. Tyrannosaur is an impressively powerful film relying on none of the camera tricks prevalent in young indie filmmakers’ works. There are some who may look at it as “poverty porn” or as just yet another lower English class kitchen-sink drama, but those people would be missing something altogether more than that. Yes it is a brutal, depressing watch at times but there is something more beneath that calloused surface.

Peter Mullan (a fellow actor-turned-director) is a frightening presence as Joseph, a volatile man consumed by rage and grief who constantly drinks himself into trouble. Olivia Colman is something of a surprise as a Christian charity store worker who's life is far from the suburban perfection Mullan assumes. Her is a performance that pretty much devastated me.

Tyrannosaur is a hard film to really recommend, as it's as far from a pleasant Saturday-night film as you can get. But it is the first film from a very assured director, who I cannot wait to see more from.

Melancholia

Whatever you may think of Lars von Trier as a person or provocateur, you cannot argue that he is a filmmaker with his own unique voice. While the ballyhoo surrounding his appearance at Cannes (and subsequent banishment) is a load of old nonsense, his latest exploration of depression is anything but.

Completing some sort of strange thematic throughline at the Festival (art-house science fiction from a noted director; The Tree of Life and with an approaching planetary body promising death or redemption; see Another Earth) Melancholia is a beautiful, depressing, confounding, daring and frustrating work of art.

Separated into two halves with each half focusing on a different sister as a strange new planet inexorably approaches the Earth. Up-front is the wedding day of Kirsten Dunst's Justine and it quickly devolves into a depressing mess, with the bride going MIA and the family constantly bickering. Her marriage is over before it begins. Charlotte Gainsbourg's Claire, and her family, are the focus of part two. Justine, still suffering from crushing depression, comes to stay with Claire, her son and her husband (Kiefer Sutherland). Oh, and then the world ends.

Melancholia is a film of big ideas and explorations but never loses sight of the micro; the muck and mire of humanity that these ideas spring from. Off-putting for a lot of people, Melancholia and von Trier have no interest in making things easy or offering answers. It's a film you just have to give yourself over to and allow yourself to be gobsmacked.

Hanna
Joe Wright is some sort of chameleon. His first film was the Jane Austen adaption Pride & Prejudice, which he then followed up with the celebrated World War II period film Atonement and then set off to the States for the contemporary but unsteady The Soloist. And then, as if to blast all the cobwebs away, he shoots out Hanna; a sort of art-house pre-teen spy thriller in the Bourne mold.

I'm fairly surprised to, a few months after seeing it, be looking back at Hanna as one of my favourite movies of the year. Especially over films like Drive and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. But for some reason or another, it is a film that sticks out to me and has captured some strange part of my imagination. Wright took a slew of disparate elements and blended them into some sort of intoxicating cocktail of cinema. Hanna is a cracking coming-of-age fairytale paranoid spy-thriller music video of dizzying skill.

Working once again with Saoirse Ronan (a chameleon equal to Wright) as the eponymous young girl assassin on the run, Wright also drafts in Eric Bana (who is sorely underused in most other films) and the frightening but bewitching Cate Blanchett. That is a trio of scarily excellent talent, in addition to the Chemical Brothers on score.

Hanna deserved more than the brief, almost perfunctory release it received in New Zealand. A film of stylish intelligence and it is a singular film in a world of franchises.

Milocrorze: A Love Story
Unfortunately, I have no idea as to whether anyone is going to get a chance to see this wonderfully oddball Japanese film because as much as I loved it, I just don’t see it having an incredibly wide audience. But then, this is exactly why I took the utterly mad step of going to Fantastic Fest this year – to see films like this that I otherwise wouldn’t get the chance to.

Milocrorze
is not a perfect film but it so very much its own thing I really don’t mind that much. Telling three stories all about love in some way or another that carry only the loosest connective tissue, they are all told in their own style. The tale of  Ovreneli Vreneligare and his love of the Great Milocrorze is a live-action cartoon with colours that sear your eyeballs; the story of “relationship expert”  Besson Kumagai is a tongue-in-cheek 60’s influenced musical while the epic tale of Tamon and his quest for his kidnapped love takes the largest stylistic detour and becomes some sort of neo-futuristic samurai romance capped off by a stunning one-take slash-fest.  Unfortunately, it is this quest that proves the films biggest weak point coming as it does after two energetic and wild segments. But it's an important part of the overall picture

It's a stunning triumph of style, with an overflow of ideas, pastiches and fizzing fun. For being a perfect summation of why I quit my job and traveled thousands of miles to the capital of Texas, Milocrorze makes it to my Favourites of 2011. 


Clown: The Movie

As sure as I am that Milocrorze won’t get any sort of showing over here, I have to wonder at the possibility of even this film getting any sort of release without a couple of significant cuts. Clown is a comedy that has absolutely zero problems in taking a giant flying leap over the boundaries of acceptability. There is an unfortunate censorship aspect that may rear its head with respect to a couple of the choicest gags in the film and cuts would severely affect the humour.

Which is an absolute damn shame, as this is easily one of the funniest films I have ever seen. And I’m sure a large part of that is due to my complete and utter surprise – I wasn’t even planning to see this at Fantastic Fest! I’m no fan of clowns, the brief synopsis I had read did nothing for me and there were so many other films vying for attention at the time. It was only due to a lucky conversation where it was enthusiastically endorsed that I caught it. Thankfully, there are no clowns and the story is an excuse to hang a whole bunch of awkward and rude humour. I guess the quickest explanation of Clown can be: it's like a sex-comedy influenced by the awkward documentary style of The Office but with no sense of restraint.

And really, in the lucky happenstance you do get to see Clown I should shut-up about it; nothing hurts a comedy like built up over-anticipation. And if you really want to see what I’m gushing about, there are six seasons of Clown on DVD available (in Dutch though). This is the film something like The Hangover doesn't dare to be.


And that's it; my 2011 wrapped up. I'd love to hear about your favourite films of 2011 in the comments. Did you go for a Drive with Ryan Gosling? Did you feel like you were worthy enough to possess the power of Thor? Or were you one of the Bridesmaids? (a film I missed at the cinema unfortunately but one that would likely find itself on this list). Or was there a film you discovered this year that was a delightful surprise you can't wait to tell everyone about?

Thanks for reading.