December 20, 2012 § Leave a Comment
In a year I’ll probably remember more for its crushing cinematic disappointments (DKR, The Bourne Legacy, Total Recall, Prometheus), there were still enough good films to make picking ten of the best a difficult challenge. Here’s how I narrowed down the field:
One of the best scifi films since Moon and probably one of the best films to play with the time-travel mechanic since 12 Monkeys. What made Looper really great, however, was that it wasn’t defined by either of these things. At its core, it was a human drama concerned with questions about cycles of violence and whether humans act primarily out of selfishness or selflessness. With nods to Witness and The Terminator, Johnson offered an experience that was unpredictable, slick, and deftly thrilling.
2. Moonrise Kingdom
Whimsical and quirky, Moonrise Kingdom was everything we’ve come to expect from Anderson but done better. A poetic meditation on the value of community, first love, and escapism – sweetly accompanied by Alexandre Desplat’s always-fine soundscape.
With gorgeous cinematography and a deliciously grotesque villain, Skyfall properly erased the bitter taste of Forster’s Quantum of Solace. Yep, it had third-act problems, but flaws aside, Sam Mendes successfully modernized the Bond franchise with a minimalist take on the fifty-year-old icon.
4. Cabin in the Woods
Joss Whedon’s ‘other’ film of the year was actually his better one. Cabin in the Woods was not just a fantastic deconstruction of the horror genre but also a frightening and hilarious thrill ride.
5. End of Watch
Short on plot and any fidelity to its reality-cam conceit, charismatic turns by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña nonetheless made this a gripping police procedural with a brutal climax.
6. The Avengers
With the build-up of three (four?) films and the weight of fanboy expectations that might have rivalled those of Dark Knight followers, Whedon had a lot to deliver on. He did exactly that. And more. The film was an immensely satisfying comic-book translation with the right amount of laughs and gasps.
7. The Raid: Redemption
Easily, the year’s best action vehicle. With a simple premise (arrest and extract a crime lord from a fifteen-story apartment block) and a bare-bones plot, The Raid is a heat-seeking missile of insane choreography and visceral, extravagant stunts.
8. Safety Not Guaranteed
A funny and sweet comedy about time travel that didn’t overplay its oddball charm. Kept me guessing right to the end.
A film that generated more intelligent discussion than it itself contained, Prometheus was a mess of ideas and plotting. Still, the scale and visual impact were reasons alone to see it.
10.The Dark Knight Rises
Even though its execution couldn’t match the lofty ambitions, at least it still had Batman doing Batman stuff in it (barely).
I should say, Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty probably would have made my top ten a tougher challenge, but both films don’t come out till January here in NZ.
January 17, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Cinema Blend crunches the numbers for the Superhero film genre.
December 6, 2009 § Leave a Comment
If there is one subject or theme that filmmakers repeatedly fumble, it is Christmas. For every good Christmas film there is a Bad Santa, Elf, or The Santa Clause. Yet, for a generation that prefers cynicism over sentimentality and values objects and people only for what they can contribute to pleasure, Christmas will always be misunderstood. The message of contemporary Christmas film, Love Actually, characterizes this predicament tellingly: ‘love actually is all around’, is its catchcry. Love, invisible and irresistible, can take any form. It is has no anchor, no zipcode in moral reality. But if love is everything, then it is nothing. When the objective realm has been supplanted by subjectivity, it is no wonder that moral principles evaporate and the heart of Christmas lost.
Joe Carter, over at First Things, gives a good argument for why Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life rightly upends the moral vision of our time and deserves its place as the best Christmas film. It’s a Wonderful Life is the translation of an older myth into a post-World War 2 world. That original story is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the tale of a miser who is given a shot at redemption. It’s a Wonderful Life features not Scrooge but George Bailey, played by James Stewart, who is contemplating death after a financial crisis and the prospect of impending disgrace. It takes a vision of a world in which he was never born to make him realise that life is indeed worth living and rediscover the spirit of Christmas. Carter, in comparing the work of Frank Capra to Ayn Rand, says:
What makes George Bailey one of the most inspiring, emotionally complex characters in film is that he continually chooses the needs of his family and community over his own self-interested ambitions and desires—and suffers immensely for his efforts.
Although sentimental, Capra’s movie is not a simplistic morality play. In the end, George is saved from ruin but the rest of life remains essentially the same. By December 26 he’ll wake to find that he’s still a frustrated artist scraping out a meager living in a drafty old house in a one-stoplight town. In fact, all that he has gained is recognition of the value of faith, friends, and community and that this is worth more than anything else he might achieve. Capra’s underlying message is thus radically subversive: it is by serving our fellow man, even to the point of subordinating our dreams and ambitions, that we achieve both true greatness and lasting happiness.
This theme makes Wonderful Life one of the most counter-cultural films in the history of cinema. Almost every movie about the individual in society—from Easy Rider to Happy Feet—is based on the premise that self-actualization is the primary purpose of existence. To a society that accepts radical individualism as the norm, a film about the individual subordinating his desires for the good of others sounds anti-American, if not downright communistic. Surely, the only reason the film has become a Christmas classic is because so few people grasp this core message.
You can watch the whole movie online at Google Video.
(Cross-posted at TM)
November 3, 2009 § 1 Comment
With the rights to the Terminator franchise going up for auction, Joss Whedon (self-described “Very Important Hollywood Mogul”) has written an open letter to the Terminator owners:
I am Joss Whedon, the mastermind behind Titan A.E., Parenthood (not the movie) (or the new series) (or the one where ‘hood’ was capitalized ’cause it was a pun), and myriad other legendary tales. I have heard through the ‘grapevine’ that the Terminator franchise is for sale, and I am prepared to make a pre-emptive bid RIGHT NOW to wrap this dealio up. This is not a joke, this is not a scam, this is not available on TV. I will write a check TODAY for $10,000, and viola! Terminator off your hands.
No, you didn’t miscount. That’s four — FOUR! — zeroes after that one. That’s to show you I mean business. And I mean show business. Nikki Finke says the Terminator concept is played. Well, here’s what I have to say to Nikki Finke: you are a fine journalist and please don’t ever notice me. The Terminator story is as formative and important in our culture — and my pretend play — as any I can think of. It’s far from over. And before you Terminator-Owners (I have trouble remembering names) rush to cash that sweet cheque, let me give you a taste of what I could do with that franchise:
1) Terminator… of the Rings! Yeah, what if he time-travelled TOO far… back to when there was dragons and wizards? (I think it was the Dark Ages.) Hasta La Vista, Boramir! Cool, huh? “Now you gonna be Gandalf the Red!” RRRRIP! But then he totally helps, because he’s a cyborg and he doesn’t give a s#&% about the ring — it has no power over him! And he can carry it AND Frodo AND Sam AND f@%& up some orcs while he’s doing it. This stuff just comes to me. I mean it. (I will also offer $10,000 for the Lord of the Rings franchise).
2) More Glau. Hey. There’s a reason they’re called “Summer” movies.
3) Can you say… musical? Well don’t. Even I know that’s an awful idea.
4) Christian Bale’s John Connor will get a throat lozenge. This will also help his Batwork (ten grand for that franchise too, btw.)
5) More porn. John Connor never told Kyle Reese this, but his main objective in going to the past was to get some. What if there’s a lot of future-babies that have to be made? Cue wah-wah pedal guitar — and dollar signs!
6) The movies will stop getting less cool.
Okay. There’s more — this brain don’t quit! (though it has occasionally been fired) — but I think you get my drift. I really believe the Terminator franchise has only begun to plumb the depths of questioning the human condition during awesome stunts, and I’d like to shepherd it through the next phase. The money is there, but more importantly, the heart is there. But more importantly, money. Think about it. End this bloody bidding war before it begins, and put the Terminator in the hands of someone who watched the first one more than any other movie in college, including “Song of Norway” (no current franchise offer).
Sincerely, Joss Whedon.
Let’s hope someone is listening. The last film entry was joyless and forgettable, and all the more painful given the real potential of the franchise. Salvation scored only $370 million at the box office, even less than the inconsequential Rise of the Machines ($430 million) and the benchmark Judgment Day ($520 million). Though unlikely to happen, it’s difficult to avoid getting exciting over what someone like Whedon could do with the concept.
January 8, 2009 § Leave a Comment
Peter Sciretta at Slashfilm has the new dark, angry poster for the upcoming sequel to the Transformers film, Revenge of the Fallen. The second movie in the franchise will again be directed by Michael Bay and retain most of the original cast, spearheaded by Shia LaBeouf.
The first film revisited the Bay formula of kinetic action and epic spectacle with adequate success and I am excited about the look of this new one (head to USA Today and the latest issue of Empire Magazine for production shots). His previous films had been on a downward spiral, but Transformers managed to transcend the weakness of the script and the overpopulated cast of stars and characters. LaBeouf’s character brought some emotional connection through the first act and most of the second, but once he was sidelined as all the Transformers came to the fore and godzilla it out, the film relinquished clarity. Noise and spectacle took over and because any identification in the story had also been lost, so did any real engagement with the conflict and action. There is a danger in most sequels to go bigger and draw in more elements (even the Dark Knight – great movie that it was – suffered from excessive subplotting), and I can’t really see Bay avoiding this trap in Fallen. The original film surrendered basic story-telling features to create grand-scale action and explosive visuals (the motto of the Witwicky family of LaBeouf’s character: “No victory without sacrifice”, seems to be the way Bay prefers to direct). Yet it was impossible to deny some visceral thrill in the CGI-driven spectacle. Every time I saw Bumblebee or Prime transform or the numerous robotic battles, I felt like a deer in car lights. And that alone is enough for me to await this with eager anticipation.
I’ll post the hi-res version when it becomes available. The first teaser footage for Revenge of the Fallen is expected to be revealed at the Superbowl.
Updated with the new trailer.
October 19, 2008 § Leave a Comment
Paramount Pictures has been disseminating new pics from the new J J Abrams directed Star Trek film. I have to say, I’m digging the new look.
I was particularly intrigued by what Entertainment Weekly quotes Abrams as saying in its feature article about the new film:
“All my smart friends liked Star Trek,” [Abrams] says. ”I preferred a more visceral experience…that grabbed me the way Star Wars did.” That meant a bigger budget and better special effects than any previous Trek film, plus freedom to reinvent the mythos as needed.
With my allegience firmly tied to Lucas’ scifi vision over Rodenberry’s, I can’t let this go: the new director responsible for the rejuvenation of the future of the Trek franchise enjoyed Star Wars more? Hurt, much?
Although the plot details are still skeletal, what we do know is that the film weaves the origins of the crew of the Enterprise, showing how Kirk and Spock came to be friends. Also, that there is an attack on the USS Kelvin by the Romulan villain known as Nero (played by Eric Bana), hunting one of the film’s central characters (see the pics of the damaged Starship). I wonder if this attack my coincide with the rumours that there may be a time travel aspect to the story.
A second full trailer will be attached to the Bond film, Quantum of Solace, which is released on November 14.
July 22, 2008 § 1 Comment
A set of posters for the still-distant Star Trek film have been released on its official site. We get our first polychromatic view of Kirk, Spock, Uhura and Nero; the skulking, misunderstood Romulan. With 288 days till its opening, and the inscrutable decision not to front at the years epicenter of geekism – the San Diego Comic Con, Paramount will be hoping this might appease its fulminating fans.
Of course, my allegiance falls to star-flung quadrants other than those purveyed by the Star Trek franchise. But say what you want of my blinkered fealty to midichlorians over dilithium crystals, the aging Star Trek license has long been eclipsed by more agile newcomers and successful reinventions of sci-fi mythologies. It is difficult to get past the fact that the last Star Trek film was a bland, insipid failure. The crude aim to replicate the satisfying denouement of the Shatter-generation crew in The Undiscovered Country felt uninspiring and formulaic. And for me, the slaying of Data in the third Act merely represented an exhausted act of self-parody, only further underlying that a zero-G vacuum had supplanted the heart of Gene Roddenberry’s original vision.
However, if someone is gonna revive the franchise and chart it into temerarious new places, its current director, J J Abrams, just might be the one. He is smart and inventive, and the current golden boy of Hollywood with two hugely popular shows on ABC. Although his last film was deemed unsuccessful by a media mostly blinded by Cruise hate, Mission Impossible III plundered a sizeable box office haul and wasn’t terrible by any measure (it remains as my favourite installment of the trilogy, easily). Whether the Star Trek opera can accommodate the kinetic, realistic direction Abrams is taking it, however, remains to be seen.
Here’s the poster, resized and recropped into the Federation Delta badge from the larger images you can get on the site.
July 21, 2008 § Leave a Comment
If Hegel is right and the philosophy of a generation is its thought contained, then its art is its conscience conveyed. Where life obscures, art has the potential to peel away the unnecessary, permitting us to feel what routine and repetition have numbed us to. In tactile artifacts of colour and cadence, art can reveal what reality has hidden and open us up to the affective. Chesterton warned of the potential for madness in the philosopher who hopes to cross the infinite and squeeze the heavens into his own head. The artist however, he said, recognises well his own limits, yearning merely to raise his own head into the heavens. It is the artist who seeks the transcendent without the impossible intention of taming it. In good art, we may witness traces of this pursuit. In great art, we are impelled to feel this momentum ourselves. French director Julian Schnabel, in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, has crafted a film that enables us to feel the heartache and hope of the human spirit.
Based on the similarly-titled memoir, the film depicts the story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, a French fashion magazine editor. Played persuasively by Mathieu Amalric, Bauby falls hard from the coruscating heights of a disencumbered, wanton existence when he experiences a stroke and becomes paralysed by what is known as ‘locked in syndrome’. This bizarre condition renders Bauby unable to move or speak and only able to communicate through blinking his left eye. With such a delicate subject matter, it is easy to imagine its mishandling by other directors. Schnabel, however, is deft and apollonian, offering an experience that is memorable and not manipulative.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is the third film from Schnabel, and also his third film with a strong biographical bent. Before filmmaking, Schnabel was a painter and sculptor, and it seems hard to deny that his work shows an obvious impetus to examine the relationship between the artist and his craft. Arguably, the tragic story of Bauby has granted him an even greater canvas to work with and Schnabel here probes deeper, more fundamental issues that are universal to us all. This is perhaps well demonstrated in how the film is shot. In the opening frames of the movie, we are committed to Bauby’s first person perspective. We are not a floating eye; we are not distant, cool observers. Bauby’s predicament is ours. We must endure the limited viewpoint and watch and listen to the slow process of rehabilitation. It is not until almost forty minutes into the movie that Schnabel permits us to glimpse Bauby, such are the director’s scruples about permitting any recoil at the inhumanity of his condition.
Schnabel further presses the impermanence and fragility of life with parallels to Bauby’s aging father (including a tender scene where Bauby remembers helping to shave him) and a friend who was held hostage in Beirut. It is in fact the friend, in a visit with Bauby, who encourages: “Hold fast to the human inside of you, and you’ll survive.” And this, I think, is close to the thematic agenda underlying Schnabel’s efforts. In witnessing the cruel imprisonment of Bauby in his own body, we’re forced to ask what it is that defines our humanity and therefore ultimately gives us hope. Is it our ability to move and interact that determines who we are? Is it in expression and in communicating that we gain meaning? Or is it something else?
The butterfly of the title offers something of a clue. For although the film is constrained by Bauby’s perspective, it is also liberated by it. In focusing on the inner life of Bauby, Schnabel is freed to roam among Bauby’s thoughts of the past and the unreal. Scenes from the hospital and of therapy are effectively spliced with memories and fantasies: glacier’s spearing into turquoise seas, a daydream of a lavish banquet, the recollection of romantic holidays and more are all worked into the narrative without occluding it. As a portrait of an artist, it is as much a study of Schnabel’s artistic imagination as it is Bauby’s.
Though completely still, Amalric is able to present Bauby with a dynamic, undimmed energy. His performance is honest and humourous at times: all the more convincing, as we follow Bauby’s slow embrace of the freedom of his imagination. Within his unresponsive body, Bauby is yet able to rediscover hope and purpose in communicating his thoughts and relaying his story. Upon the errant wings of this imagination, his soul finds a weightlessness, and in that he finds the quiddity of what it is to be human.
This I found was the only weakness of the film for me. As heartening as it was to watch Bauby regain hope, and triumph over his despair; the hope he encountered seemed hollow and unconvincing. The comments of Herman Bavinck, a Dutch theologian, come to mind:
Art cannot close the gap between the ideal and reality. Indeed, for a moment it lifts us above reality and induces us to live in the realm of ideals. But this happens only in the imagination. Reality itself does not change on account of it. Though art gives us distant glimpses of the realm of glory, it does not induct us into that realm and make us citizens of it.
Banvinck is right – art alone cannot atone for our guilt or assuage our deepest pains. I was disappointed that director Schnabel dismissed religion too easily. In the film, Christianity assumes the shape of well-worn stereotypes: it preys on the desperate, it is excessively moralistic (a Jesus glow statue ruins Bauby’s night with a girlfriend) and is no better than the metaphorical suit of iron that pulls Bauby to the ocean floor. But even art requires a framework that only religion can provide. The kindling of our imagination can be invaluable, but it must be within the context of a transcendent moral law and the shaping of our conscience by the Spirit of God (Phil 4:8).
After opening at Cannes exactly a year to its release here in this country, the film arrives with multiple awards and high acclaim from the festival circuit (though it comes with its trophy-flush armfuls cruelly light of an Oscar – denied by the Academy’s ‘one-country-one-film’ policy). And for the most part, Schnabel deserves every accolade. His film is a haunting and abrasive journey into an interior world of both human lostness and courage. While it works more effectively at raising questions than it is at answering any of them, Schnabel has yet delivered a cinematic tale that is of unique, quiet beauty.
July 3, 2008 § 1 Comment
In the age of the remark arrives yet another film that seeks to disturb cinematic ghosts of the past. Initial reception to the idea of a re-imaging of the classic science fiction film The Day the Earth Stood Still has been mostly skeptical, if not incautiously negative. For myself, while I tend to avoid remakes in principle, some stories can transcend generations, enthrall new audiences, and actually be recycled effectively. Given what I’ve seen so far and the fact that it falls into a category of film that I love, I doubt I will be able to stay away from it.
The original 1951 film may be perfunctory by contemporary measure, but stands as one of the films that defined the genre. In depicting the landing of an alien craft and its occupant, Klaatu (played by Michael Rennie), who eventually would warn humanity of a looming peril, the story was a commentary on paranoia and the political events that were current at the time. With a narrative freedom untrammeled by their current scientific understandings, the filmmakers were able to exploit an external fear for alien civilisations to probe a greater danger lying within humanity itself.
The new film, directed by Scott Derrickson, seems to have supplanted the originals cold war didactic message for an environmental one. Which, really, shouldn’t come as a surprise. The marriage of science fiction and enviromental activism is not particularly new; Dennis Quaid put on his snowboots for Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow and just these last few months we have WALL-E and The Happening (and of course, can one forget Al Gore’s fantastical sci-fi contribution in 2006?).
This trailer may dull the negative reaction, however, because it does actually have a good feel to it. While I don’t know how Keanu Reeves will fare as Klaatu (I suppose his limited acting range actually may lend itself to a cold inhuman character), Jennifer Connolly and Kathy Bates (watch for Will Smith’s son in there as well) may make this film an enjoyable viewing. The director, Derrickson, has mostly worked within the horror genre (such as The Excorism of Emily Rose) so may bring a darker, bleaker tone to a story that has often been stapled by shallow popcorn nonsense. And since Paramount Pictures abdicated the Christmas period by shifting JJ Abram’s Star Trek to May, this could be the sci-fi monster to conquer the holidays.
As an aside, watching the trailer, I couldn’t help but imagine this as the X-files film Chris Carter should have delivered this year. Not the tame ice-bound treasure hunt with some serial killer werewolf lodged in the shadows that we’re getting instead. At the very least, I would have thought only something similar to the scale and epic sensibilities of The Day the Earth Stood Still could have justified bringing Scully and Mulder back to conclude one of the best shows of the nineties.